“It’s a Wonderful Life” is picking up steam. While stage productions of this beloved 1946 movie were once rare, they are now nearly as common as stage productions of “A Christmas Carol.” By my count, five New Jersey theaters are presenting shows derived from “It’s a Wonderful Life” this month, while eight are doing the same with “A Christmas Carol.”
Luna Stage has a really good one with “This Wonderful Life,” which was adapted by Steve Murray and is directed, here, by Daryl L. Stewart, with one woman, Erica Bradshaw, playing all the characters as well as providing a running commentary on the action. This is quite a feat, though, more importantly, this version delivers more or less the same emotional wallop as the film. During the play’s climactic scene at the performance I saw, Bradshaw had to pause, briefly, since she had started crying.
The production starts with taped news voices saying dire things about Standing Rock and Syria and so on. Bradshaw enters the stage, which looks look the backstage area for a full-scale production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with props strewn about, haphazardly.
She picks up a script of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “I love ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” she says, then offers a quick, two-minute-or-so condensed version.
“Was that too fast?” she asks, and then devotes the rest of the show to telling the whole story.
I know the movie very well, so, for me — and for most of those in attendance, I assume — all it took was one or two key lines to see and feel the whole scene. I can’t say how someone who has never seen the movie would experience the play, but I assume it would be a somewhat less fulfilling experience.
But anyway, I thought Bradshaw did a great job of conveying the essence of the movie, starting with her dead-on Jimmy Stewart impression as the story’s main character — the eternally frustrated, momentarily suicidal but ultimately thankful-to-be-alive everyman George Bailey (played by Stewart in the movie).
Of course, she played all the other major characters (and many of the secondary ones), too, including George’s steadfast wife Mary, the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, the flirtatious Violet and the wise-cracking maid, Annie (the movie’s only African-American character, as Bradshaw notes).
Some of the props that seem to be just lying around come in handy. A mannequin, for instance, stands in for Mary in the scene where George and Mary are sharing a phone, and kiss for the first time.
Bradshaw keeps a distance from the material, early on, frequently adding wry asides between the familiar lines of dialogue. But later on, when George is plunged into the depths of despair and then, miraculously, rescued, she sticks more to the script, as if she is just as caught up in the story as we are.
I’ve never seen the movie without being immensely charmed and deeply moved by it, and can happily say that that applies to this stage production as well.
“This Wonderful Life” will be presented at Luna Stage in West Orange through Dec. 18; visit lunastage.org.