We're about to be inundated again with all the holiday’s sights, sounds, and smells, including numerous iterations of A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life. While it’s always an option to watch the ubiquitous 1946 Frank Capra film again, Joe Landry's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 3 adds the fun of a well-realized 1946 live radio broadcast.
Director Jesse Bernstein's ebullient production features scenic designer Scott Groh's WBFR studio. Lit warmly by Shon Causer, with "On the Air" and "Applause" signs, it’s also filled with old-fashioned big silver microphones, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, holiday wreaths and lights, and musical instruments for the show’s five actors.
Tabitha Allen, Damon Bonetti, Jessica Johnson, Michael Toner, and Josh Totora are beautifully dressed radio performers. Bonetti's two-tone wingtips and Allen's form-hugging red dress are just the flashy highlights of Rebecca Dwight's superb period designs. They play dozens of roles and sing two hilarious commercials and some story-framing carols.
Mimicking a movie sounds like poor theater: see Steve Murray's one-man show This Wonderful Life (produced locally by Act II Playhouse in 2016 and People's Light & Theatre Company in 2012) — or, better yet, don’t.
Landry's superior, sincere version adds the station's Playhouse of the Air "live broadcast" thrills, including the actors' busy execution of the show's Foley sounds: the radio effects we normally hear but don't see. Johnson, for example, wears a pair of shoes tied around her neck so she can quickly click the heels together to sound like someone walking. Speaking into a glass makes a character sound like he's on a phone. Quickly bouncing a balloon approximates a car's rumble convincingly — who knew?
The cast convincingly brings the characters to life, even though they never act realistically together. They perform into microphones, standing separately, and we have the fun task of imagining the props, scenery, and action in George Bailey's story. Bonetti plays his fall from cocky ambition to suicidal plunge with aplomb (and no trace of Jimmy Stewart). Allen's Mary is forthright and forceful. Toner's Clarence, the probationary angel assigned to George, is mischievous and fun, balancing Totora as George's crusty antagonist Potter. Johnson plays town flirt Violet as well as the Baileys' youngest child, Zuzu.
The whole tale emerges without flagging in a brisk 90 minutes, including its anticapitalist undertones — though it would be anti-Christmas to explain those in detail here. The show has a lighter-than-air nostalgic jollity, especially since there's no real suspense for us (though the cast plays it straight through the story's darkest moments). We all know what's going to happen, including the sing-along "Deck the Halls" encore, which makes it no less enjoyable.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is part of our culture's annual warm and fuzzy Christmas sentiments, which emerge each November and disappear in January's cold, only to rise again next year. Why fight it, especially when it's shared with such talent and skill? By losing, we win.