The setup: Old-time radio drama gets a nostalgic analog tune-up under Texas Repertory Theatre's adaptation of Frank Capra's Christmas-friendly movie It's a Wonderful Life (1946). In Joe Landry's stage version, we're the 1940s audience during a live radio broadcast of NYC station WBFR's "Playhouse of the Air," like something out of Lux Radio Theatre, renowned for its movie adaptations. We watch the actors take on multiple roles as the drama unfolds, see and hear the sound effects in action, and listen to the humorous commercials for hair pomade, tooth powder and toilet soap. There's even an Applause sign that lights up when appropriate to prompt our responses. All that's missing is the live orchestra, but Steve Fenley's sound design ably completes the picture with recorded big band "bridge" music between the scenes.
The execution: Radio drama's magic depended upon resonant, evocative voices, and director Scott Carr has assembled a talented aural quintet to portray all the many characters of Bedford Falls, New York, a microcosm of American small-town life between the wars.
Steve Fenley, with his booming bass, is announcer, God, evil Mr. Potter, ineffectual Uncle Billy and smartass Ernie the cab driver. Matching Fenley's delicious ham, Alan Hall plays Clarence, the guardian angel who's sent to Earth to teach George the moral of the story ("no man is a failure who has friends") and earn his wings after 200 years, as well as playing Harry, George's younger brother, and Pop Bailey. Dave Maldonado's lively baritone overlays the story's hero George Bailey with an everyman tone that becomes increasingly more desperate with what he perceives as his useless, unfulfilled life. Lauren Dolk's calm and soothing alto becomes Mary, George's abiding wife, whose bedrock core of decency and strength is George's pillar; and Lendsey Kersey, looking lovely in sequined jacket and Rita Hayworth hair -- Macy Perrone's costumes are spot-on -- plays town sexpot Violet and Mom Bailey with equal appeal. But why Violet sports a lowdown accent as if she'd just stepped off the D Train from Grand Concourse is a mystery. Isn't fictional Bedford Falls placed in upstate New York, not the Bronx?
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The set by Trey Otis is Art Deco-inspired with its background New York skyline silhouette and stylized sunburst proscenium. Except for the period microphones, it doesn't resemble any antique radio station's functional auditorium, but it's visually pleasing. The big fault in Landry's adaptation is having the actors create the sound effects. No vocal talent ever performed the footfalls, water sloshing or door slamming, or shook the metal sheet to replicate thunder. All that was carefully controlled by the backstage effects pros. Actors at the mikes wouldn't be clopping around the studio anyway, since their own footsteps would've been broadcast across the country.
As in the film, the story's dark underpinning turns to happy-ever-after with great effect, as George, contemplating suicide, is shown what life would have been like without his presence. Its universal theme of "no man is an island" and how everybody is interconnected sneaks up and suddenly hits you over the head. It's feel-good and sentimental, but the power is undeniable and is relevant no matter what era. Capra's movie, with an all-star cast that included an iconic James Stewart, a dewy Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore as miser Potter, Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy and Henry Travers as angel Clarence, wasn't the hit hoped for, although it was nominated for Best Picture, with nods to Stewart and Capra. When the rights expired in the '70s, the movie was shown on TV as a Christmas show. Forgotten for years, the film became an overnight classic.
The verdict: Travel back in time to old-time radio days when stories were told through tone and imagination was left up to the listener. If you like, just close your eyes at Texas Rep and relish the sounds. Even whittled down and absent the rich visuals that Hollywood created, the old Philip Van Doren Stern short story holds up extremely well. It has a message for any season. The five sonorous voices create all manner of pictures that dance in your head.
Frank Capra's beloved holiday movie gets a shrewd "radio" stage adaptation, which runs through December 23 at Texas Repertory Theatre Co., 14243 Stuebner Airline. Purchase tickets online at the theater's website or call 281-583-7573. $17.50-$35.