It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Classic tale, fresh approach
Radio-style staging, sound effects add charm to `Wonderful Life'

Julie York Coppens
Charlotte Observer
December 2, 2007

"You've been given a great gift, Charlotte: a chance to see what the world would be like if you'd never lost your professional regional theater."

At least I think that's what the angel said...

Could the fine production of "It's a Wonderful Life" now at Spirit Square be a divine visitation meant to keep Charlotte's most depressed theater fans from jumping off a bridge? I know I felt better Saturday, after the first of four performances this weekend by N.C. Stage, a professional company on loan from Asheville. The traveling show, a co-production with Asheville-based immediate theatre project, must lift spirits wherever it plays -- but especially here.

In this 1940s-style, "live radio" stage adaptation by Joe Landry, five gifted and engaging actors in vintage costumes voice the many familiar characters from Frank Capra's Christmas classic: George Bailey, a small-town banker blind to his own worth. His devoted wife, Mary, and their four adorable kids. His uncle Billy, whose dottiness, combined with the greed of town boss Mr. Potter, nearly brings disaster down on the Bailey Building and Loan. Clarence, the apprentice angel assigned to save George from suicide. Ernie the cabbie, Bert the cop, Vi the blond bombshell and all the others in tiny Bedford Falls whose lives would have been poorer, in some cases tragically so, if George had never been born.

Do we really need to experience this story again? Of course.

There's a reason "It's a Wonderful Life" remains an immortal TV presence in December, and this pared-down stage version reminds us of everything we love about the movie, often in surprising ways. How is it possible that an adult actor pretending to be little Zuzu ("Not a smidgen of temperature!") could tug at our hearts even more than 6-year-old Karolyn Grimes does on screen? Or that watching another actor mimic the crack of ice with a branch of bamboo could help us feel the chill of the lake that almost claims George's kid brother, Harry?

That's theater.

Asheville director Hans Meyer -- he also plays Clarence and other parts in the show -- keeps his fellow actors busy scoring this "Playhouse of the Air," as the faux broadcast is billed, with low-tech sound effects. A hand slapping an eggplant: That's Mr. Welch, the teacher's husband, slugging a distraught George in Martini's bar. Sure, it's a gimmick, but Landry's radio-theater approach fits the period and, far from distracting us, refreshes dialogue most viewers already know by heart.

The production's staging might be cute, but the portrayals are clear, earnest and deeply felt. Actor Willie Repoley makes the leading role his own, neither imitating nor departing radically from James Stewart's iconic screen performance. Repoley gets strong support from Lauren Fortuna (Mary), Kathryn Temple (Vi, Zuzu and others) and especially Joe Sturgeon, a man of a thousand voices (from God on down) who would have had a lucrative radio-theater career in another era.

True, Charlotte should be producing more of its own high-quality theater, not importing it from Asheville. But as George learns on that fateful Christmas Eve, when in need, there's no shame in accepting gifts from well-meaning friends. Let's accept this sweet little show as George does his own miracle, with open hearts, and be thankful that the members of N.C. Stage will be using their newly earned wings to fly back to Charlotte soon: In April, they'll bring another play with cinematic roots, Ron Hutchinson's "Gone With the Wind"-inspired comedy, "Moonlight and Magnolias," and in June, Lee Blessing's smart satire of politics and dogs, "Chesapeake."


Theater REVIEW
`It's a Wonderful Life'
N.C. Stage of Asheville brings its charming radio-theater version of the classic Christmas film. About 90 minutes.
WHEN: 2 and 8 p.m. today.
WHERE: Duke Power Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. ADMISSION:
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or Julie York Coppens