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Bob Goepfert Reviews "It’s a Wonderful Life" At Capital Rep

Elizabeth Nestlerode
Doug Liebig
Elizabeth Nestlerode

If you love the Frank Capra film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (and who doesn’t?) you will truly appreciate the staged radio version of the material playing at Capital Rep in Albany through December 22.

It’s an interesting approach as the tale is told by only four actors.  The premise is that on the day of broadcast, a snow storm prevents almost the entire cast of the show from getting to the studio to perform.  Because the station is in perilous financial condition it is imperative that the show is aired.  Two employees (the sound effects man and the boss’s daughter) join the only two professional actors from the cast who are not affected by the storm.

There is fun to be had watching the quartet play about three dozen characters, create their own sound effects and dash across the stage to be at a microphone at the exact time they are needed.  It’s a clever idea that adds visual interest to the presentation.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at WVL Radio,” is faithful to the source material.  There is not a character in the film who is not represented on stage.   It’s a great treat for those who can mouth the dialogue along with the actors, and certainly makes anyone not familiar with the film, comfortable.  

But, who doesn’t know the film?  In fact, because of the familiarity with the material, there are times during the offering that you wish the adaptation would just get on with it, condense a moment or cover a scene through narration.   I am certain at 90 to 100-minutes in length, it would be much more fun than it is at two hours and twenty minutes (which includes an intermission).

However, none of mind-wandering that takes place during the production is the fault of the cast.  Carl Howell is an ideal George Bailey.   He finds the happy melancholy of a dreamer who is forced to be a realist.   Howell finds the goodness within this man of character.  He is ordinary in every way, and yet is a leader in his community.  It’s a nice, energetic and engaging performance that gives the play a solid center.

Wynn Harmon is, however, the magician of the piece.  Everyone, even Howell assume other roles, but Harmon performs over a dozen characters. Each is given a personal touch and his major role – Clarence, the angel who redeems George by showing him what the world would be like if he never existed, is kindly and perfectly drawn.  His portrayal of the miserly Mr. Potter is equally special, as is his version of the bumbling Uncle Billy.

Elizabeth Nestlerode is a charming as George’s wife Mary, and has a good time with a couple of male roles.   Laurie Wells captures the niceness of Kitty, the loose woman with a heart of gold and several incidental characters.  

Also on stage is the music director Josh Smith who sometimes leaves his piano to take a role in the play.  He, and Harry Lumb on bass, provide accompaniment to several commercial jingles that add to the fun and give a sense of 1940s radio.

Margaret E.  Hall’s direction captures the heart of the beloved story and makes certain the cast is faithful to the film originals, yet individual enough to seem fresh. 

However, she, like the actors, are trapped by the limitations of the script – which is merely efficient.   It would be a major help if the subplot of the romances going on at the station would add emotional subtext to the radio show.  They don’t.  As it exists, they are merely plot points, not engaging additions to the story.

Though Hall’s staging makes the complicated look easy, it could be more clever.   It shouldn’t look easy.  This is a cast of half amateurs, and the other half are bit players assuming major roles.  All are winging it.   Their efforts should, at least on occasion, look awkward or improvised.   At Capital Rep, you never get the feeling that they are one stumble away from disaster.  At play’s end you appreciate the skill of the performers, but rarely relate to the cast as actors on the radio playing characters from a film.

This is an efficient telling of a familiar story.  This effort captures the essence of the film and that’s a good thing.   Sadly, it pleases without enhancing the original.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live from the WVL Radio Theatre,” at Capital Repertory Theatre, Albany.   Through December 22.  Tickets at 518-445-7469 or go to capitalrep.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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