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article imageReview: Soulpepper reimagines ʻWonderful Lifeʼ as a postwar radio play Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Dec 16, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - As with other overexposed holiday classics – “A Christmas Carol”, “The Grinch” and so on – itʼs hard to see “Itʼs a Wonderful Life” in a fresh way. But Philip Grecianʼs stage adaptation tries a unique approach: a live radio play.
It makes sense, since live, one-hour radio adaptations of popular Hollywood movies were very common from the 1930s to the ʼ50s; sometimes they starred members of the movie casts. The difference with Frank Capraʼs beloved 1946 movie is that it wasn't popular when it was first released; it later became a classic through repeated TV airings. In his 2003 play, Grecian imagines the movie as a radio dramatization in the same period, as if it were a recent hit too. The playʼs not really a staging of the story, but a fly-on-the-wall depiction of a 1940s studio putting on the radio play – complete with voice actors playing multiple roles and loads of creative sound effects aimed at three old-school microphones.
Canadian Stage put on Grecianʼs version in Toronto in 2008 to critical acclaim, and now itʼs Soulpepperʼs turn, in an energetic new production helmed by the companyʼs artistic director, Albert Schultz. And this show, while not entirely satisfying, is fun on two levels. Even if youʼre not sentimental enough to appreciate Capraʼs story about George Bailey (Gregory Prest, taking over the iconic James Stewart role) and his salvation from suicide and despair by the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence (Oliver Dennis), youʼll still be entertained as you watch all the players scramble around the stage, performing different voices or grabbing props to do their own Foley artistry. Celery, plastic wrap, a wash tub, even a 1940s-era refrigerator used as a car door: all kinds of quirky, unexpected objects make background sound effects, with James Smith playing piano music.
Schultz is even bold (or shameless?) enough to insert old-timey radio commercials for upcoming Soulpepper productions and sponsors like CIBC and TELUS. “Mommy, Iʼm bored!” Michelle Monteith whines as a little girl, and her mom solves the problem with the companyʼs Winter Waves family programming this January. Itʼs contrived as hell, but it also gets knowing laughs.
For the few who donʼt already know the story: George grows up in the small, sleepy town of Bedford Falls, dreaming of travelling the world and making a big mark on it. But his perceived responsibility to his familyʼs building-and-loan business — threatened by the greed and corruption of megalomaniac, Trump-like villain Henry F. Potter (Diego Matamoros) – keeps him in the town, where he marries sweetheart Mary (Raquel Duffy) and builds houses for the townspeople. One Christmas Eve, a sudden financial crisis brings George to the brink of jumping off a bridge, until Clarence saves him by showing him how Bedford Falls and the people he loves would have turned out if he hadnʼt been born (an alternative reality as horrifying as that in any time-travel story).
The radio play is very faithful to the movie, including most of the dialogue, and youʼll be surprised how quickly this story whips by. It doesnʼt have the emotional sweep of the film, of course, with the expected limits of a play delivered only by sound. A few of the movieʼs memorable moments – like the famous scene in which a gym floor opens up into a swimming pool at the high-school dance – are lost in awkward verbal exposition by Dennis and Derek Boyes (as Joseph in heaven, narrating Georgeʼs life story to Clarence).
The performances are fine, but have a noncommittal feel, probably because Soulpepperʼs cast isnʼt really playing the movie characters – theyʼre playing fictional voice actors putting on a show. Prest doesnʼt come anywhere near Stewartʼs passion, but plays George as a regular Joe trying to do the right thing. Matamoros is a bit cartoonish as Potter and drugstore boss Mr. Gower, though not nearly so much as Daniel Mousseau, who gives bar owner Mr. Martini a very silly Italian accent. Grecianʼs script downplays Clarenceʼs naiveté and the dimwittedness of Georgeʼs Uncle Billy (William Webster) for some reason, leaving those actors with much less to work with than Henry Travers and Thomas Mitchell had. On the other hand, I like the twangy ʼ40s New York vibe that Ellie Moon gives to the voice of Georgeʼs employee Tilly, and Monteith does great kiddie voices as Georgeʼs daughter, Zuzu, and others.
While the radio play is no substitute for the Capra film, the story still works as a timeless holiday fable – even with some minor elements that havenʼt aged well. Iʼm actually surprised that Schultz has kept in the moment when George teases Mary as she hides in the bushes in the nude (“A man doesnʼt get in a situation like this every day...”); today, Georgeʼs behaviour would be considered sexual harassment or abuse. Ditto for Maryʼs sarcastic comment, “Heʼs making violent love to me, mother,” which is a little disturbing now. On the other hand, Grecianʼs script replaces Potterʼs dismissal of Bedford Fallsʼ immigrant residents as “garlic eaters” with the more general “riffraff,” so thereʼs some selective political correctness there.
Although the movie of Itʼs a Wonderful Life is a comedy as much as a tearjerker, the humour in Schultzʼ version comes more from the outer operations of the radio studio, including the cornball commercials and the frantic Foley and vocal effects. One of the biggest laughs comes when Joseph announces the births of Georgeʼs kids: a female actor cries as a baby boy, and a male one plays a girl. Itʼs also amusing to watch Matamoros talk into a cup to sound as if heʼs on a phone, or other actors mumble and step around to create the impression of a restless crowd.
As radio plays had their limitations, so have live theatrical depictions of radio plays. Soulpepperʼs Itʼs a Wonderful Life is fun to watch, and it does invite nostalgia of cozy home viewings of the Capra movie; still, maybe it works best for those whoʼve never seen the movie and can enjoy the story without any preconceived images or notions, while learning about the inner productions of an old radio studio. I preferred The Art of Time Ensembleʼs similar rendition of War of the Worlds a few years ago, but this one earns a few wings along the way too.
Itʼs a Wonderful Life runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre (St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts) until December 31.
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