After years of rejection from every publisher he approached, Philip Van Doren Stern self-published his short story “The Greatest Gift” as a pamphlet in 1945. Little did he know that in just a few years, Hollywood legend Frank Capra would adopt his tale into one of the most enduring and well-loved Christmas classics of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre has its own holiday tradition, presenting Joe Landry’s adaptation of the film as a live radio drama. Through Dec. 23, theatergoers can enter the studios of WSMT in Hoboken on Christmas Eve, 1945, and watch a small cast re-enact the story of George Bailey and his guardian angel that most of us have nearly memorized.
To borrow a phrase, it’s a wonderful production, nostalgic and heartwarming and funny by turns. Presenting the familiar story as a radio drama adds a playful spin, and this version even fills in a few gaps that Capra’s editing left out the original studio release of the film. (Ever wonder why George fumbles in his pockets for Zuzu’s petals? Now you’ll know.)
The stage decoration looks exactly like the old-time radio studios we’ve seen in films and television, and the cast’s period costumes couldn’t be more spot on. Even the playlist of ’40s Christmas music that ushers the audience into the theater provides a perfect nostalgic touch.
The show’s secret weapon, actress Hannah Mount, portrays the station’s Foley artist. That was the technician who provided all the sound effects on a radio show, from footsteps to creaking doors to telephones ringing. Mount does a fantastic job bringing the action to life with her effects.
John P. Keller plays the leading man, Jake Laurents, who does the voice of George Bailey with just a hint of Jimmy Stewart in his voice, while Maggie Weston shines as his co-star, Sally Applewhite (who plays Mary Bailey). The rest of the cast all play multiple roles, none better than the ebullient Michael Daly as Freddie Fillmore, who doubles as both the station’s announcer and a plethora of characters. Joelle Zazz plays bit player Lana Sherwood as a bit of a Martha Raye cut-up with lots of ’40s sass, while Tim Nicolai cockily assays Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, who voices Clarence the angel and a host of other parts.
You know the story: The archangel Joseph (Daly) tells Clarence that he’s to be sent to Earth to save the soul of George Bailey, who’s about to commit suicide. Joseph guides Clarence through the details of George’s life, one of constant self-sacrifice and loyalty as he gives up his own dreams to run the teetering Bedford Falls Building & Loan Association and stave off the greedy Mr. Potter.
Clarence stops George from killing himself by jumping off the Bedford Falls bridge himself; George, selfless as always, dives him to save him. When George tells Clarence that his life has been a waste and he wishes he’d never been born, Clarence grants his wish, and we get to see what Bedford Falls would be like if George Bailey not been there to support his family and friends.
I won’t spoil the ending, in the unlikely case you’ve never seen the film, but let it be noted that while I could practically recite the dialogue along with the actors, I nonetheless was wiping tears from my eyes. Radio drama is a magical medium, one that engages the listener’s imagination in ways that television and film simply can’t, and this play accomplishes the same miracle. Even as we watch a small cast of actors supply the voices of adults and children, drunks and cops, angry customers or concerned neighbors, it truly seems as if dozens of people are swarming across the stage.
The production is completely child-friendly and a wonderful accompaniment to the holiday season.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted by Joe Landry and directed by Joseph Discher, runs at the Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken through Dec. 23. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.