For people of a certain age who love Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it might be difficult to imagine that the now-classic holiday story bombed at the box office when it was first released.
Over the past several decades, however, the film has steadily risen in the estimation of the public and critics to the point that it is consistently placed among the greatest films of all time. Perhaps that is because, since the late 1970s, it has played on what seems to be a continuous loop during the Christmas season.
When the audience begins filtering in, the cast of this show, rewritten by local author Ed Pierce, will be in character as radio actors who are hosting a holiday party before the show. At 7:30, the radio program begins.
At the Station Theatre in Urbana, Ed Pierce has adapted and directed a version of the story as a radio play.
Remember those wonderful stories of yore enacted on the radio? Don’t you love the warm feelings generated by the gentle populism of Frank Capra movies? Remember gentle populism?
On entering the performance space, audience members are treated to an intimate and rousing welcome from performers appropriately bedecked in 1940s-style clothing. We are in a Chicago theater where WJMP will air its “live” version of “Wonderful Life,” and the actors are warming up by singing yuletide carols while encouraging the audience to sing along.
It is all very informal as 10 actors and musical director Cheryl Forest Morganson gradually create the framing device within which the show will unfold.
Pam Christman introduces the show with a bit designed to show how John Tilford and other members of the cast will create sound effects. David Laker plays the nominal host of the radio show who is not above cracking corny jokes while selling sponsors’ products. (There is also an extended inside joke that involves artistic director Rick Orr and his flower business. The opening night audience loved it.)
For those who have not seen the film, a bit of a back story is likely in order: George Bailey (Jake Carl Fava) has let go of his dreams in service to the desires and needs of others. When his family business, a building and loan that serves the working class of his community, is repeatedly threatened with failure, he never capitulates until it looks as though jail is on his horizon. George suffers the ultimate crisis of faith and finds himself on the receiving end of a little divine intervention.
An angel named Clarence (Laker), who has yet to earn his wings, comes to earth and helps George discover the positive, permanent impact that the self-denying everyman has had on the people he knows — and on those he will never meet.
Adapter Pierce has done yeoman work in making the story function by creating narrative bridges where film sequences might otherwise be necessary. The design team of Jadon Peck (scenery), Susan Curtis (costumes), Brian Hagy (lighting), and John Tilford and Larry Gates II (sound) has added just the right amount of production value so that Pierce’s adaptation and the multitalented cast can shine.
While every member of the cast brings something moving and amusing to the piece, of particular note are Katie Baldwin Prosise, Joi Hoffsommer, David Butler and David Krostal. Fava effortlessly captures the good-natured essence of George and Laker as the heavenly helper consistently amuses.
If you could use some lighthearted, engaging entertainment to warm the dark December nights, then this “Wonderful Life” might just be for you.