Thursday, November 29, 2012
Theater review: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at WaterTower Theatre
A play within a play devoid of the classic Christmas characters.
ADDISON In all aspects of the performing arts, this seems to be the season of "the word." One local theater just finished production of a play performed entirely in the dark, two current films are set on a theatre stage, therefore keeping any broad action to a minimum, and staged readings abound across the area, giving our imaginations a needed workout while actors recite new and classic works. Then there’s a wealth of poetry slams and readings of original works by amateur and professional writers alike. Our own Dallas Museum of Art has a year-round Arts and Letters series, bringing authors and actors together, reading selections of short stories and novels to eager audiences.
Storytelling is, of course, nothing new. Ever since man gathered in groups, there was someone chosen to remember the tales and traditions, passing them down the generations for safe keeping. Evolution led those tales to be written down, printed in mass and then told through an even newer source, the radio. Being the modern campfire of sorts, it was one of the quickest ways to transport information, both tragic and celebratory, and became the gathering place of whole families for an evening of music, stories and plays. Many a theatrical project had its beginnings on the radio. One of the most famous broadcasts was Orson Welle’s War of the Worlds which terrified much of the East Coast as he presented it like a newscast alert and forgot to announce it was only a story. That is the power radio had, and still has, to spark our imagination and let our minds and ears, rather than eyes, tell the story.
With a radio in every home, operas and symphonies could now perform for people in the remotest towns. Radio became such a popular form of entertainment that stations opened up their studios for that special energy only live audiences provide. Big bands with headliner singers performed as if it were a nightclub. Standup and film comedians performed their acts live across the country. But it was the weekly stories and plays that kept listeners enthralled and eagerly awaiting the next episode or performance. Today we still have National Public Radio (NPR) and shows like Selected Stories and, of course, Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keeler. One of our most beloved stories first aired on radio in 1947 but had its origin in 1939 as a story by Philip Van Doren Stern titled The Greatest Gift that he enclosed in his Christmas cards. Privately published in 1945, next came the film by Frank Capra in 1946. The Christmas holiday would not be complete without a showing of It’s a Wonderful Life at least once on television. Those of us who still love that corny, old black and white movie have the story and all the characters’ faces forever etched in our memories. So when that same story is minimalized to words and sound effects only, the opportunity arises to relive it through both our memory and imagination, hearing it as if for the first time.
Originally adapted by Joe Landry as a full-scale stage production, budget constraints condensed the story to radio format. WaterTower Theatre’s presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play whisked us back to that bygone era and radio station WBFR in New York City. As you turned the corner of the theater’s lobby, you found yourself walking down the station’s hallway, complete with black and white portraits of the celebrity radio stars. Red drapes gathered with large Art Deco brass holds decorated both the hallway and the audience seating. Enormous domed ceiling lights hung above the seating as the house lighting. Rodney Dobbs’ set contained all the elements to suspend our disbelief, allowing the audience to believe they were actually in the audience for a live radio show.
A large window in back pictured the studio high above the city in a skyscraperover looking Rockefeller Center and their annual Christmas tree. Three live standing microphones were placed downstage with boxes for extra height and a runner carpet for noisy shoes. "Applause" and "On the Air" signs hung above and five red director chairs were set upstage with the radio stars’ names across the back. Sound effects tables were filled with quirky and magical devices to aid the story. A piano and organ were also placed with the tables, making stage left a cocoon of sound and musical delight.
Jeff Stover’s lighting was pretty much full up the entire performance. Muted lights were spiraled around the studio Christmas tree and only the domed lighting dimmed. Cory Garrett’s props were also minimal, consisting mainly of a water pitcher and glasses, scripts for the radio commercials, and a women’s compact seen only once. Anything else must have fit in so naturally as to not be noticed.
All seven performers, which included five radio actors, the sound effects man and the pianist/organist/effects assistant, were dressed in late 1940s finery. Barbara Cox costumed the men in three piece suits with matching or plaid and argyle vests in holiday colors. The sound effects man wore no coat but had added suspenders along with his vest. The women wore below the knee, shapely-fit suits of post World War II military cut. High heels were thicker-soled, much like today’s retro style, and their hair was shoulder length or longer, coifed in large waves and up swept fronts like the glamour girls of the time period. I loved the long snood the pianist/organist wore to hold her hair in place as it gave her a more prim quality than the other women. Her costume was less glamorous and looser, probably to make her quick movements amongst the tables and instruments easier.
Scott Guenther is credited as sound designer, and not recalling any other sounds, will hopefully correctly state that he designed and/or found all the wonderful effects used live onstage. And who better to execute all those necessary sounds than hard-working musical director about town, Scott Eckert. I watched his deft precision in readying the sound effects object, be it shoes, coins, broken glass or record needle. He came in right on cue with a flourish yet never took stage presence from the actors on microphone. My only critique is that many of the effects, especially the water splashes, were too quiet for the “studio” audience and therefore probably too quiet for the “radio listeners.” Other than that, it was great fun watching how all the sounds were made. Erin McGrew added her own flourishes on piano and organ and aided Eckert with manual effects when his hands were full. She played both instruments well and clearly was having fun in her role and duties. They both worked smoothly together, like a well choreographed dance.
Mark Fleischer directed his five radio performers to be present onstage as the audience came in, looking over scripts, chatting with each other or mixing with the audience members. In having them onstage from the start, it lent a more casual atmosphere, dropping the normal fourth wall of most plays. The ice breaker "Jingle Bells" sing-along also helped, and just as we were about to go into verse two (which no one knows), the sound engineer behind the audience thankfully motioned the broadcast was about to go live. All of those little extra details were essential in helping the audience feel more a part of the performance.
I would hate to think that I need to relate the story’s plot here but just in case there is one lone individual who doesn’t know this tale of faith and redemption, here is the briefest of synopsis and I doubt I’ll be giving anything away: George Bailey has lived his whole life in Bedford Falls in upstate New York with close family and school friends, yet desires to leave the small town for college and travel the world. Family circumstances, depressed times and the war prevent George’s dreams and plans from happening, and over the years he lets them go one by one, leaving him still yearning. It takes a disastrous mistake, a hasty wish to have never been born and one rather fuddy-duddy angel looking to earn his wings to make George realize just how good his life is after all.
It’s a Wonderful Life has a multitude of characters, young and old, and to perform them on radio with any clarity is a feat in itself. Jessica Cavanagh, B.J. Cleveland, Jim Johnson, Matthew Laurence-Moore and Lydia Mackay were more than able to provide the audience’s ears with all the subtle, and not so subtle, nuances that distinguish one character from another. Though all play a variety of roles, each had signature voices of the well-loved characters to perform. Laurence-Moore and MacKay play the roles of George and Mary Bailey, made forever famous by Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the film and again on radio. While both actors here played with and picked out the essence of the original actors, neither of their performances were recreations but more of homage to the film and its stars. When it was absolutely essential, Laurence-Moore knew just when to bring out the Jimmy Stewart inflection. Who can get out of their head Jimmy Stewart saying, “Whatta ya know Bert? My moufs bleedin', my moufs bleedin’!”?
Laurence-Moore made Stewart and us proud, yet he made the role his own and in that alone he deserves great accolade. Mackay read Mary as Reed performed it yet she too made the character her own, more strong and determined than the film version.
I especially appreciated the choice to make Mary less frail and hysterically frightened as the spinster librarian during the “never were born” sequence of the story. I never liked Reed’s interpretation but then, when the film was made, being a spinster must have been the worst thing a woman could end up being.
Jessica Cavanagh gets to play Violet, the town’s bad girl with a heart of gold, and George’s longtime friend and confident. Using a sweet, sultry voice for Violet, Cavanagh then deftly switched to the opposite end of the spectrum to vocalize Ma Bailey, both as a strong wife and mother to George and brother Harry, but then to the suspicious, worn-down boarding house owner in the dream sequence. Cavanagh’s interpretations brought all her characters beautifully to mind.
Jim Johnson played many of the town’s citizens, but shone as both Harry Bailey and angel Clarence Odbody (get it?). Johnson’s vocal quality for Clarence was spot on, though sometimes it wafted from New England to Texas with a slight detour to Italy. Maybe that last one came from his role as bar and restaurant owner, Mr. Martini. But it was a mere moment in an otherwise fine performance of his roles.
B.J. Cleveland landed some plum roles in doing the voices of evil banker Mr. Potter, absent-minded Uncle Billy, pharmacist Mr. Gower and many others. Sometimes the script had Cleveland talking back and forth from one character to the other, and he never slipped up once, each voice distinctly different enough to understand the plot. Cleveland was also the weekly radio show’s emcee, leading the audience to applaud and cheer when needed and reading the sponsor commercials in between acts. Remember, all the actors not only played various characters in the radio drama, they also played the roles of the radio actors. It was fun to watch them when they weren’t on the air or in front of the microphones. Getting water, changing scripts, reapplying lipstick or stepping out of the studio for a bit all added to the authenticity Director Fleischer was hoping for. He achieved it in abundance.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play allows the audience to step back into a seemingly simpler time and enjoy a truly different holiday show with no Scrooge, no Nutcracker, no Santa Claus or Grinch. How refreshing and how wonderful.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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