It's dangerous business adapting a film as iconic as It's a Wonderful Life for the stage. For one thing, you're begging audiences (and reviewers alike) to compare your new adaptation to the source material, even to reassess the source material itself at every turn. Those comparisons and reassessments are nothing approaching fair, but they happen anyway. So let's dispense with as much of that as we possibly can at the top here.
Frank Capra's 1946 film is a sum greater than its constituent parts. If you ignore for a moment that it's a holiday movie, you find what is really a clumsily handled story about the evils of America's banking system (insert requisite references to bailouts and TARP and OWS here). A story that's chock full of stock villains and heroes. A story that's just plain too long. But Capra was perhaps the (long E) master of movie magic for the first half of the twentieth century. And so we ignore the film's flaws in favor of its charm and its sentiment and its blinking stars and its ringing bells. Oh, and there's James Stewart at his absolute earnest best to draw our attention too.
But then, how to adapt this material for the stage without the magic of the cinema, without the magic of a Stewart performance? For one, you substitute a bit of the magic of the theater. For two, you substitute the magic of… radio.
The full title of this production reads It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, and that's how it's presented: as a live, 1940s radio theater performance with a live studio audience (that's you). You see those words—'a live radio play'—and you think the show is going to revolve around the sounds of sheet metal thunder and watering can rain and cereal bowl shoe steps. And it does. But playwright Joe Landry and director Eric Ting do a few smart things with that preconception. For one, there's a wordless, five-minute set piece near the top of the show that amounts to a virtuosic performance vehicle for foley artist Nathan Roberts. As actors move silently across and into the theater, Roberts enlivens their world with sound effects, sound effects performed in pinpoint perfect tandem with the actors' movements. Cigarettes lighting, doors closing, the pouring of drinks: We see the actors and the props in action, but what we hear is all Roberts (under the direction of sound designer John Gromada) and his full orchestra of squeaky shoes and creaky hinges and crunchy corn flakes. Roberts isn't a credited member of the cast (he has no lines of dialog), but he's onstage for almost the entirety of the play, and he steals the show on a number of occasions.
Devoting so much time at the top of the production to foley serves to exhaust our curiosity about and provide us with a vocabulary for the mechanics of radio sound effects, sure, but it also reminds us that this version of It's a Wonderful Life happens in a world without diegetic sound. Which is what the guise of A Live Radio Play does here: It acts as a buffer between the audience and the story itself. It's how the magic of radio comes into play. There's a self-conscious layer of artificiality here that gives us permission to get swept up in a story as hokey as this one might seem, anew, in 2011. And that layer isn't just made of sound effects. There are flashing APPLAUSE signs. There's an audience singalong (I'll come back to that). There are even wonderfully politically incorrect period radio commercials performed live by the actors.
The actors. The story-within-a-story nature of this play makes it nearly impossible to write intelligibly about the acting here. Each actor is playing an actor acting. And each acting actor that these actors are playing plays multiple roles in the radio play that this stage play encompasses. Lost yet? You're not the only one. The playbill omits character names entirely, either in the interest of not frying each audience's collective brain or of saving the ink it'd require to explain just who it is that's who here, beyond including headshots. (I will say this, though: Dan Domingues, who plays the host of the show—ebulliently pointing to the blinking APPLAUSE signs at all the appointed moments—and a number of characters within the radio play, brings the house down each and every time he embodies Potter, It's a Wonderful Life's Scrooge. Domingues's nasal, almost too Barrymorian voice would be enough, but it's the contorted, Grinchish face he uses to achieve said voice that puts it over the top. Your kids, as they say, are gonna love it.)
All of those layers of confusion and obnubilation are true for each of the actors but one. Alex Moggridge is charged with playing just one character, our George Bailey, and he isn't quite playing an actor playing that character either (stay tuned). It's a tall task taking on Jimmy Stewart's beloved Bailey, but Moggridge does nothing to remind us of Stewart other than reading (and he is actually reading much of the time) the same lines. His George Bailey is earnest, yes, but his is an earnestness made of youth, made of simple, unexaggerated facial expressions. And he does it from within the one part of this production that doesn't quite work. The entire story here is framed by an opening scene centered around Moggridge. As the houselights go down, he enters the stage alone, wearing contemporary clothes: jeans, sneakers, a hooded sweatshirt. He enters to find a dusty, broken down old radio station. As he pokes about in the studio, it comes to life around him, transforming into the Golden Age of Radio set that we're treated to for much of the show's 110 minutes. And as the radio play begins, Moggridge's unnamed opening character is drafted into service as the star of the show, by the end of which, he's seemingly transformed into Bailey himself, rather than an actor playing a character. The framing here works against the built-in layer of artificiality. It's all fake, so it's okay that it's corny! But it's all real, maybe, so it's okay that we're engaged too! It's an understandable conceit, but it isn't necessary, and the play would be better served without it.
For the play gets away with everything the movie gets away with and then some. It has its hokeyness and its earnestness. It has its story-within-a-story construction. It even runs too long. But that's all obscured by, well, by the magic of the theater. The film hits a trouble spot when George Bailey stands on a bridge, considering suicide. You feel like you've seen a whole movie at that point, and suddenly you're whisked off to a different, darker film that runs for another full half hour. The play hits the same lag there, but Landry and Ting again use their divergent mediums to smart effect. When George gets to the bridge, all the production values fall away—the lighting, the live sound effects, even the actors. Moggridge again stands alone, facing a George Baileyless Bedford Falls that we never see, that we're left to imagine on our own, as Bailey does, helped only by the offstage voices of the other characters and true foley effects, heard but not seen (it's the magic of the theater begetting the true magic of radio). This stark, empty counterpoint is just the right note for these moments, and the transition out of it is just as graceful: As Bailey comes back to life, so does the theater. The actors reappear. The studio reanimates. The APPLAUSE signs wink back on. And as Domingues's radio host leads a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," a startling, but delicate, lighting effect brings every cubic inch of the theater to life, and the actors and the audience sing together. It's sentimental, sure—if you're singing "Auld Lang Syne," it's sentimental by definition—but the play earns it. You'd have to be some special kind of jaded to sing those words with these actors in that twinkling blue theater at the end of this show without feeling a reinvigorated appreciation for your very own wonderful life. Bring tissues.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs in evening and matinee performances most days through Saturday, December 31, at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven.