REVIEW: Concord Players make ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ savvy, vintage entertainment

Before we tackle this vintage holiday favorite, I would be remiss not to mention the acclaimed founder of the Concord Players.  Fans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women know of the beloved drama club that was established in the book as well as the Pickwick Papers, the title a nod to Charles Dickens.  Beloved author Louisa May Alcott founded the Concord Players and Little Women has been staged annually as Concord Players reached their centennial year.  Perhaps the drama club in the book was part of her inspiration.

Speaking of Charles Dickens, A Dramatic Reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol read by Johnny Kinsman will be the next Concord Players streaming event on YouTube Friday, December 18th at 7 p.m. Click here for more information on the event and how to support The Concord Players.

Classic holiday entertainment resurfaces the way mistletoe suddenly hovers over unsuspecting lovebirds at just the right moment.  One of the holiday season’s most anticipated classics is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a 1946 film about life’s joys and struggles culminating on Christmas Eve starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.  It returns to the television screen every year with several opportunities to watch.

Directed commendably by John Pease, The Concord Players presented this beloved classic in November with a novel and nostalgic twist.  Rewinding the clock to Radio’s Golden Age in the 1940s on a dark, snowy night in Manhattan, NY, Concord Players streamed Joe Landry’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play staged as a live radio broadcast on fictional station WCPR for a limited time on Broadway on Demand from Friday, November 20 through Sunday, November 22. 

The bright and festive studio stage was adorned in Christmas lights, garland, and a Christmas tree while a group of voiceover artists included Freddie Filmore as Announcer, Lana Sherwood, Sally Applewhite, Eileen Rivera, and Jake Laurette as George Bailey recreate the show on vintage sterling microphones, portraying a number of roles in the process.  Rachael Rabinovitz’s authentic and colorful costumes set a cheerful tone as performers dress in their festive Sunday best for the radio.

Optimistic George Bailey’s faith in life and humanity is challenged as he desperately struggles to figure out life’s meaning as a certain angel is vying for his very own set of wings.  Touching, poignant, and darker than one would expect, It’s a Wonderful Life is a timeless family production that reminds audiences what truly matters.  Foley artist and sound effect expert Elizabeth Havenor’s technical wizardry is a scene stealer as Concord Players bring new perspective to this classic tale.

The cast masters the tricky task of portraying 1940’s voiceover artists, while also embracing a number of beloved characters in the production.  Navigating between each individual character while voicing multiple characters young and old within the play take particular skill.  Craig Howard brings warmth and charm to wise, yet bumbling Clarence and it was fascinating to watch Howard change his voice to Sam Wainwright by placing a glass against his mouth.

It was refreshing to see Jay Newlon portraying dreamy George Bailey not with Jimmy Stewart directly in mind in a good natured, earnest, adventurous portrayal, though he needed a bit more fire during the show’s more climactic moments.  A particular highlight was witnessing the torment in George’s face as he struggled with leaving his hometown behind while also feeling obligated to stay.  His scenes with heartwarming and hopeful Rachael Rabinovitz as Mary Hatch and with Jenn Bubriski as Rose Bailey have beautiful candor.

John Alzapiedi delivered a versatile performance as a winning narrator, skillfully depicts Potter’s booming narcissism and menacing gravitas, and brings sympathetic Mr. Gower to life.

Sound designer Tim Powers was behind the show’s authentic vintage sound which included the organ-tinged, melodramatic music and jingles of old and a couple of engaging commercials “from our sponsor.”

Foley artist and sound effect coordinator Elizabeth Havenor seamlessly kept the show rolling as her busy hands maneuvered every sound seamlessly.  Allen and Anne Bantly must have brought new meaning to providing the appropriate props to keep Havenor up to speed.  She rang every bell, blew each whistle, and slammed every door while also creating an impeccably-timed ringing telephone to a wild storm to popping champagne.  It was amazing to see how all of it was done during radio’s golden age.  It’s a Wonderful Life is such a timeless show and yet translates so well into a live radio play that it never misses a beat.  

Concord Players will soon present A Dramatic Reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol read by Johnny Kinsman will be the next Concord Players streaming event on YouTube Friday, December 18th at 7 p.m. Click here for more information on the event and how to support The Concord Players.

Americana Theatre Company’s David Friday and Nick Mitchell talk ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’

Over 70 years ago, despair, hardship, hope, and generosity encompassed a holiday tale that quickly became a film classic.  Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, The Greatest Gift, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life became an annual family tradition for generations and The Americana Theatre Company is bringing back this popular, unique retelling of this beloved story suited to the film’s time period.  With a small cast inhabiting over 40 roles with a Christmas Eve setting, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is performed as a 1940s radio play with a cast of just five actors.  The show runs from Wednesday, December 6 through Saturday, December 16 at Plymouth Center for the Arts in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

American Theatre Company cast 2017

A few cast member from Americana Theatre Company’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ through December 16 Photo courtesy of Americana Theatre Company

Managing Director of the Americana Theatre Company David Friday and Director Nick Mitchell discuss the inspirational transformation of It’s a Wonderful Life into an interactive, onstage, and in-studio live radio show.

Sleepless Critic:  What I like so much about It’s a Wonderful Life:  A Live Radio Play is the nostalgic 1940s setting fits right in line with the time period of the film.  How did this idea come about?

Nick Mitchell:  Radio plays have taken off and a lot of companies are doing live, mock radio plays by bringing in the effects and the different voices from the actors.  It was only a matter of time before authors got a hold of pieces like It’s a Wonderful Life.  Two different versions of the script are available for It’s a Wonderful Life that is a formatted radio play.  The one we’re using is by Joe Landry who condensed it into anywhere from 40 actors, but five are recommended and five is what we are going with.

SC:  Those five actors will play 40 roles as I understand.

NM:  Yes, indeed.  George Bailey is played by Jesse Sullivan, Emily Turner Marsland as Mary. They play just those roles, but Josh Nicholson, David Friday, and Erin Friday, the Director of Education for Americana Theatre, play everybody else.

SC:  I understand your voices will be enhanced with microphones, sound effects, and there will also be an authentic ‘Applause’ sign.

NM:  The ‘Applause’ sign is funny.  David made this fully working sign.  I kept thinking during the rehearsal process whether it is bright enough for the audience to see it.  However, audiences have responded to it the minute that sign lit up.  It was fun to watch.

It's a Wonderful Life A Live Radio Play

Cast of It’s a Wonderful Life In Studio Photo courtesy of Americana Theatre Company

SC:  It also makes it more interactive for the audience too.

DF:  The opening speech of the show explains to the audience that the broadcast will be in a radio studio.  Other performances of this show have to be done on a large stage and broadcast on the radio to a different venue.  In the opening speech, the announcer says that people at home are going to be able to hear you so laugh, applaud, cry, and it will all be part of the show.  It really tries to get everybody involved including our stage manager.  He can be seen in the production booth window.  We added that nice little twist.

SC:  Have there been any surprises during this show’s run such as unexpected reactions to certain scenes?

DF:  It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.  I see it every year just like most people do and get a little misty when I watch it.  At the end of one evening’s performance, quite a few audience members were crying or very close to it.  It is good for us.  It just tells us we’ve been able to capture the spirit of the original film.

It’s nice and I’ve actually seen a couple of online Facebook comments that people can’t wait to go home and watch it.  They enjoyed the show and want to watch it because the show recaptured something in a way that they have never seen it and want to go back and relate it to what they know.  People even thinking that way is a large victory for us.

SC:  What is the best reason one should come see the production?

NM:  In this digital age, we get entertainment where and when we want it with a push of a button.  I think at this time of year, a show and format like this reminds us to set aside some time with people that mean something to us and be entertained.  In the process, see how many lives we’ve touched in the meantime.

SC:  It’s a live show so anything can happen.

NM:  It will, believe me.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues through Saturday, December 16 at Plymouth Center for the Arts, 11 North Street in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Reserve tickets by clicking here or call 1-508-591-0282. Tickets will also be available at the door.  Follow the Americana Theatre Company of Facebook for more information about this amazing theatre company and future productions.

 

REVIEW: Festive and moving, Massasoit’s production of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is time well spent

Soft, twinkling lights and vintage multi-colored bulbs frame the Buckley Performing Arts Center stage as beloved Christmas carols ring in the holiday cheer in anticipation of a beloved tale.  That familiar sign, “You are Now in Bedford Falls” rings true as Massasoit Theatre Company opened a four show, two weekend run of It’s A Wonderful Life continuing through Sunday, December 3 at Buckley Performing Arts Center, part of Massasoit Community College in Brockton, Massachusetts.  Craig O’Connor, who acts as part narrator and full-time aspiring angel, warmly recalls a beautiful and haunting tale of the value of a life well spent.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

It's a Wonderful Life Bedford Falls

Curtis J. Bellafiore as George and Elizabeth Lovley as Mary Hatch and the cast Photo courtesy of Massasoit Theatre Company

Massasoit has an affinity for festive onstage caroling during annual holiday productions and We Wish You a Merry Christmas is just one of an array of classic tunes to set the mood.  The rolling stage, designed impressively by Nathan Fogg DeSisto, hearkens not only to its vintage 1920s to 40s setting, but visually captures some of the tale’s most iconic moments from the cold, snow covered bridge to a wooden bench frequently shown in Bedford Falls, a setting inspired by Seneca Falls, New York.  Jennifer Spagone’s distinct costume design make the cast looked sharp as women wore brightly colored dresses from polka dots to paisley in signature hairstyles of the period and the men in a variety of suits, ties, and winter coats faithful to the season.

It's a wonderful life Baileys

Patricia Straight-McGrath as Mother Bailey and Curtis J. Bellafiore as George Photo courtesy of Massasoit Theatre Company

Told partly in vignettes and flashbacks, It’s a Wonderful Life focuses on a morbidly downtrodden George Bailey, portrayed with a unique charisma by Curtis J. Bellafiore, who reaches a pivotal moment in his life that makes him question the value of his existence.  Enter mild-mannered Clarence Odbody, portrayed with warmhearted sincerity by Craig O’Connor, who questions whether he can produce a Christmas miracle.

It's a wonderful life Uncle Billy

Curtis J. Bellafiore as George and Danny Hannafin as Uncle Billy Photo courtesy of Massasoit Theatre Company

Director Tony Ruscio masters the challenging task of capturing the charm of this small town through the cast’s jocular and moving camaraderie.  The children have small roles, but each engages the audience in their own distinct way.  With a winning smile and apprehensive verbal style only mildly reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal, Curtis J. Bellafiore, embodies endearing dreamer George Bailey with a unique charisma.  His instant chemistry with Elizabeth Lovley as jubilant, yet mysterious Mary Hatch is captivating to watch.  Lovley’s real skill as Mary is not just in the scripted word, but in the subtlety of her performance.  Lovley’s quiet serenity perfectly complements Bellafiore’s charming optimism.  Craig O’Connor harnesses such a natural presence as lovable Clarence that it is difficult to imagine the actor himself any other way.

Chris DiOrio, last seen as grouchy but lovable Shrek in Hingham Civic Music Theatre’s fall production of the same name, takes a gloriously dark turn as the infamous Mr. Potter.   As he makes his demands from a sitting position, his presence casts a constant shadow, his deep, gravelly, and well spoken demeanor brimming with unflinching practicality.  His calculating exchanges with each cast member are riveting to say the least.

It's a wonderful life Potter

Chris DiOrio as Mr. Potter, Jim Gross, and Margaret O’Brien as Bank Examiner Photo courtesy of Massasoit Theatre Company

Massasoit Theatre Company’s festive and moving It’s A Wonderful Life continues through Sunday, December 3 at Buckley Performing Arts Center, One Massasoit Boulevard in Brockton, Massachusetts.  Call 508-427-1234 or click here for tickets and further details.  Follow Massasoit Theatre Company on Facebook for upcoming events and more.