Saturday, December 8, 2012
Theater review: Runway Theatre’s It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play revives a dated holiday classic
You don't even have to like the movie to love this innovative version.
It's A Wonderful Life is not my favorite film. In fact, despite my admiration for Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, and the genre, It's a Wonderful Life ranks near the bottom of my list of classics, holiday or otherwise. So for those of you who detest the film but are surrounded by people who force you watch it during the holidays, and for those of you who adore it and do the forcing, I present this handy solution: Turn off the television and speed over to Runway Theatre's production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, which is one of the most engaging shows I've seen in quite some time.
For those of you who don't know, the story is a tale of redemption and epiphany, all with a little help from some supernatural cohorts. George Bailey has spent his entire life in a small town in upstate New York and desperately wants to leave for college and to travel the world. Circumstances, including the Great Depression and WWII, prevent George from fulfilling his dreams as others fulfill theirs in his place. In a moment of desperation, George hastily wishes to have never been born and Clarence, a feather-brained angel, steps in to make George realize just how important his life actually is.
Why did I enjoy this play when the very suggestion of watching the film sends me into an eggnog-chugging frenzy in a deluded bid to make myself so sick that I am automatically excused from the activity? There are many reasons, but mainly it has to do with the fact that the plot of the classic story is not the main point of this play. Let me explain.
Runway Theatre's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is set in a live radio studio (complete with antenna shaped like a halo) that is decorated for the holidays. The actors perform at what appear to be authentic vintage microphones, a pianist provides the music during the broadcast at the keys of an old-fashioned upright piano, and most intriguingly, about a quarter of the stage is taken up by a Foley artist's booth, complete with props for all sorts of manual sound effects. As an audience member, you are being treated to a glimpse back at how live radio broadcasts were created during the 1940s.
To embody all of the characters in the classic story, the production uses a cast of eight actors. In order to perform the many roles, the play requires actors with theatrical dexterity and agile thinking. Runway's cast manages this with great aplomb.
Amy Jackson and Damon Wadyko are more than adequate as Mary and George, respectively. Jackson's Mary is sweet but strong, and Wadyko's George, though overly stumbling in the beginning of the play, grows into a likable enough adult. The transition from young George to adult George occurs over the course of one sentence, and Wadyko handles the vocal shift during this sentence expertly.
All of the supporting cast are amazing in their instant and effortless switching between a multitude of different voices and characters. Lynsey Hale is an extremely versatile comedic actress and is particularly amusing as Zuzu and Tilly. Likewise, Kristin Spires and Erin Maher are, at alternating times, very moving and funny, particularly as the Bailey children. Larry Grobe and Greg Kozakis each deserve special note for their dexterity when speaking to themselves while playing two separate characters; they are completely convincing in their transformations. In addition, Grobe's Clarence is a heart-warming simpleton and Kozakis' Uncle Billy and Mr. Gower, while somewhat similar in sentiment, are easily distinguishable vocally. Finally, I am particularly impressed by Erin Maher as Violet and James Worley as Nick. In the sequences that occur before and after George wishes to have never been born, they both display an uncanny ability to stabilize the basic essence of their character while still demonstrating a fundamental shift in the character's internal workings--and almost all through voice.
Which brings me to our ninth actor: Eric Brown, as the Foley artist, has one of the most important and interesting roles in the production. He is responsible for the wide range of sound effects produced, most of which appear to be produced manually. While he does enlist the help of other cast members from time to time, he creates many of the effects himself. It is fascinating to observe him at work and learn how sounds such as wind, crackling fire, police sirens, crunching snow, thunder, and doors opening and closing were once simulated in a small radio studio. I find it even more intriguing to observe how seamlessly the players work with him to ensure that sounds clear before dialogue begins. The balance between providing interesting effects and keeping the effects non-disruptive is excellent, but unfortunately this means that some of the sound effects are very quiet. During the performance I attended, there were a few times when I could see the performers creating the effect, but still couldn't hear it.
In addition to the characters from It's a Wonderful Life, most of the actors in this production also play a radio player character. It's a twist on the "play within a play" device and it works. Given the numerous characters already being played, it would be easy for a production to focus less on the radio player character in order to simplify things for the actors, but that's not what director Scott Nixon has done here. Each radio player has a distinctive personality and distinctive preferences. This can be seen in how they carry themselves and in the small gestures they make, and even in the tiniest details, such as the unique way in which the script from which they are reading is bound. Thus, some of the most fascinating moments unfold behind the scenes as the radio players joke and laugh with one another. In particular, I greatly enjoyed watching a flirtation unfold between the Foley artist and one of the radio players, complete with lingering gazes when one thought the other wasn't looking.
Perhaps most impressive in this particular production is the demonstrated attention to detail. Not only are the back stories of the radio players fascinating but that diligence extends across the board to scenery, props, costuming and sound. For example, all of the actors, whether male or female, have different yet authentic period hairstyles. The makeup is exactingly accurate (and probably a lot of fun to put on). The costuming is convincing all the way down to shoes, jewelry, suspenders, glasses and other accessories. In fact, the only items obviously missing are authentic undergarments. In addition, the props are very specific. From a glass Coca Cola bottle to vintage copies of Newsweek to the old broadcasts of Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech playing at intermission, all add to the legitimacy of the performance.
Further details that add to the authenticity of the show concern the radio performance itself. The actors walk between microphones, using them to signify distance, and in instances when a crowd is called for they use walla, an old time radio version of directed indistinct mutterings, to provide it. Similarly, reverberation is used effectively to signify a heavenly location when Clarence and Joseph are speaking to one another, although I found that I had to listen closely to understand dialogue during these portions of the broadcast, particularly in scenes where other characters are also speaking.
Commercials interjected at different points during the "broadcast" are for local Grapevine businesses which invites the audience to suspend disbelief and certainly generates interest in the advertised establishments. The imperfect nature of live radio is also played up -- during the performance I attended, the Foley artist dropped an item at an inopportune moment, the actress playing Mary almost tripped over another player's crochet yarn, actors bumped into one another and a few actors flubbed their lines a bit. However, due to the live radio medium and the improvisational skill of the actors, it is difficult to tell whether or not these are intentional.
So, despite my typical disdain for It's a Wonderful Life, Runway Theatre's production not only provided a legitimate way in which I could appreciate the story, but also seems to have brought out the kid in me. I enjoyed the rare sound of a plane engine as it departed from or arrived at nearby DFW Airport, and while this wasn't necessarily authentic to a radio production, I thought it added color to the venue. I craned my neck and squirmed in my seat if I couldn't see someone who was speaking at one of the upstage microphones. (I recommend seats further back to avoid this.) I wanted to play with every prop and piece of scenery on the stage. The only way this performance could possibly have further interested my inner child was if they had let me create my own sound effects. In fact, if Runway ever decides to have a sound effects demo after the show, invite me back, and I'll be there!
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