After decades of knowing, and loving “It’s a Wonderful Life” — the uplifting holiday season perennial — in its original, celluloid form, it’s pretty wonderful to re-experience it, in a variety of ways, onstage. I saw a very good one-woman version at Luna Stage in West Orange last year and, this year, I thoroughly enjoyed “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” which the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison is presenting throughout December.
The movie was released on Christmas Day, 1946, though its story climaxes on Christmas Eve. The premise of Joe Landry’s 1996 adaptation (directed, here, by Doug West) is that it’s Christmas Eve, 1946, and you’re in a New York radio station, watching actors speak their parts into vintage microphones for people listening in their homes. Scenic designer Charlie Calvert’s set — with its wooden chairs and linoleum flooring, its bulletin board on the wall and control booth in the back corner — conjures the feel of an old-fashioned radio station.
A slick announcer (played by Leavell Javon Johnson) hosts the evening, and you watch the actors sing jingles and do live commercials, as actors might have done in a real radio station during that era. Also onstage is a sound effects guy (Warren Pace), who creates the illusion of howling wind, and splashing water, and doors opening and slamming, and so on.
Nine actors play about 40 roles, and it’s fun to watch them morph from one character to another in a split second, altering their voices, postures and facial expressions. In one scene, James Michael Reilly has to play a number of characters in quick succession and, in a bold move, spins around each time, re-emerging as someone else. And Elizabeth Colwell is so good at playing the seductive Violet Bicks that it’s a bit of a shock when she transforms herself into the innocent child Zuzu. Some of the actors also add music to various scenes by playing an onstage piano, and help out with the sound effects (since, sometimes, more than one person is needed) when they’re not acting.
It’s not, exactly, a realistic portrayal of a radio play. There’s more physical acting than there would be in a real radio play, and the actors make minor adjustments in their costumes (adding a scarf, or a hat, or something like) that wouldn’t, obviously, do anything for an on-air audience, but help the theater audience keep the characters straight. So this is, really, a hybrid between a radio play and a straightforward theatrical production.
Not that that’s a problem. This production is just as absorbing as the classic movie itself — and the final scene is just as dependably tear-jerking — and that’s saying a lot.
The movie’s influence is unavoidable, of course. John Keabler uses a thin, squeaky tone and a slightly stammering delivery to echo Jimmy Stewart in the role Stewart played: Good-intentioned but long-suffering family man George Bailey. As the evil Mr. Potter, John Ahlin speaks in a Lionel Barrymore-esque growl, though, thanks in part to the dapper suit that costume designer Natalie Loveland came up with, he also adds a touch of vanity that wasn’t there in the original.
Also, Ahlin’s Bert the cop is more of a goofball than Bert was in the movie, and Susan Maris gives Mary Hatch — who flirts with George as a girl, then becomes his wife and the mother of his children — a bit more spunk and sassiness than Donna Reed projected in the movie.
Some parts of the movie, such as the high school dance and Mary losing her bathrobe while on a walk with George, are left out. And some things are added, like a subplot in which Mr. Potter enlists the help of a bank examiner (Tina Spofford) to ruin George, and George telling Mary “I love you” immediately after he finally lets their long-simmering mutual attraction blossom into a relationship.
Of course, in the movie, Stewart acted out that sentiment without saying those three words, and Barrymore, as Mr. Potter, let his nefarious intentions be known with a wicked gleam in his eyes. But in a radio play, you can’t have people expressing things without words. Landry tinkered with that parts that needed to be tinkered with, but left a lot of things alone, and that’s fine for a story that hasn’t lost a bit of its charm in more than 70 years.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Dec. 31. Visit shakespearenj.org.