Review: 'It's a Wonderful Life' delightful adaptation of classic movie

03:10 PM, Dec 10, 2012

Written By Leah Stacy

Time has a way of making the magic of Christmas a little less magical. The tinsel loses its sheen, the shopping is a hassle, and the lights on the tree don’t twinkle quite as brightly.

Holiday traditions, too, can become tiresome.

John Haldoupis, producing artistic director of Blackfriars Theatre, likely had this in mind when he chose the 2012-13 season’s holiday show, It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play, which runs through Dec. 22.

Playwright Joe Landry provides an imaginative, novel take on the 1946 Christmas classic that made Jimmy Stewart a household name. It’s a smart 80 minutes of holiday nostalgia that fills a void left by commercialism and ugly Christmas sweater parties. It’s also economically friendly for a small theater company; five actors play more than 30 roles with support from a lone sound effects technician.

The set is sparse — an art deco-inspired radio studio with “applause” and “on-air” signs that light to prompt the audience. There are cane-back chairs for the performers, two mics and a table filled with odds and ends technical director Dave Baxter uses for inventive sound effects.

Leading the local bunch of performers is the marvelous Peter J. Doyle (Freddie Fillmore/Various), who was last seen as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in David Reed’s Franklin in a Cobblestone Arts Center production in November. Doyle’s portrayal of the bitter, sneering Henry F. Potter rivals Lionel Barrymore’s original character, while his ineffable charm gilds the roles of the announcer, God and Mr. Bailey. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Doyle is a professional voice actor, in addition to his stage and film work.

Threatening to steal the spotlight from Doyle is Jake Purcell (Jake Laurents/George Bailey), who captures the awkward lovability and ambition of George Bailey with a face that’s decidedly more suited to stage than radio. While some emotional scenes fell flat, Purcell was riveting opposite Brian Doran (Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood/Clarence Oddbody/Various) as the show reached its climax. Doran, too, fits snugly in the roles of both the absentminded Uncle Billy and gentle Clarence.

The ladies of the show — Mary Tiballi and Linda Loy — wore ill-fitted wigs, which distracted from otherwise beautiful period costumes. With roles ranging in age from Zuzu to Violet Bick and Mrs. Bailey, Loy was flawless in her vocal inflections, characterization, and tones.

Tiballi (Sally Applewhite/Mary Hatch Bailey) — who’s known locally for her strong musical performances, most recently in JCC CenterStage’s Working —seemed to struggle with her character development. The role of a 1940s radio starlet eclipsed the well-loved nature of Mary Hatch Bailey until the seductive looks, eye rolls thrown (too often) to the audience and coquettish tones completely marred the emotional gravity Tiballi could’ve grasped with such an iconic role.

But as an ensemble, the cast delivered a delightful “broadcast” from the studios of WBFR — one that’s well worth seeing before the end of the run.

Diehard fans of Stewart and Capra may cringe at such a re-imagination, but their fears are unfounded. The memorable moments remain — lassoing the moon, an angel earning his wings, Zuzu’s petals — all enhanced by the adrenaline of live theater.

Wonderful, indeed.