IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Makes For A Wonderful Live Radio Drama

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The cast of Metro Theatre Company's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Photo Credit: Jennifer A. Lin

Legendary move director Frank Capra was probably only ever completely surprised twice in his life, and both times for the same film. Arguably his best known work today, It’s a Wonderful Life was not a great box office hit when it opened in 1946. The film starred one of America’s most beloved actors in Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a fellow far too nice for his career in the building and loan industry nearing the end of his rope. Lionel Barrymore played the unscrupulous Mr. Potter who tries to put Bailey out of business--during the Christmas holiday, no less! I'm sure the icy reception of his film by its first audience came as a surprise to the one of the most respected directors of his day. Thirty years later in 1976, the film runs on television during the holidays and--according to Capra himself in an interview conducted late in his life--it was, surprisingly, a huge hit! I can't say for certain but it's very likely aired on one network or another every year since. 

This year, the Metro Theatre Company in St. Louis is performing It’s a Wonderful Life on the stage of the Grandel Theatre, just a block east of the Fabulous Fox. Adapted by John Wolbers and directed by Julia Flood, this version tells the familiar tale of George Bailey with a twist: it's a play presented as a golden age radio drama.

Set in the 1940s at a St. Louis radio station prepped for their annual live performance of It’s a Wonderful Life, the regular actors leave en masse for lunch and promptly get a nasty case of food poisoning. A handful of station hands, ranging from the polished station announcer to the decidedly unpolished janitor, take it upon themselves to save the day, even pressing their mail man into service. It shouldn't be a spoiler to know that this makeshift troupe experience their own Christmas miracle.

From top to bottom, the cast was brilliant. Abraham Shaw, who has appeared in several shows with Stray Dog Theatre, plays postal worker Walter Bell who gets drafted by quick-thinking station writer June Kelly (Metro Theatre Company regular Alicia Reve Like, who voices Mary Hatch in the radio drama) to play the part of George Bailey. Station manager Vera Hayes (Mindy Shaw, new to the St. Louis theatre scene, and no relation to Abraham), timid secretary Minnie Hopple (Roxanne McWilliams, starting her twelfth season with Metro), smooth announcer Chester Collins (equally smooth Carl Overly, Jr., who has acting credits all over town), station producer and Foley artist Floyd Rogers (multi-talented Chris E. Ware, with appearances ranging from Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis) and janitor Ruby Vandenboom (Nicole Angeli, whom I have somehow managed to never see before despite covering many of the same companies she's worked with locally) play a wide range of characters. 

While the entire cast was wonderful, I want to highlight three performers who really stood out to me. Chris E Ware demonstrated the time-honored skills of a Foley artist, which is someone who creates sound effects on the fly for radio programs. I've always been fascinated by special effects in film, but today it's almost always done with computers. I prefer the old ways, using models, puppets, actual explosions, etc. In the old radio programs, and even in a few modern throwbacks like A Prairie Home Companion, the Foley artist would shuffle through a deep tray of gravel to mimic walking on a gravel road. Shoes would be rocked on a wood plank to sound like someone walking up the front steps and into a house. Real doors opened and closed to put that tangible image into the listener's mind. Old accounting machines, telephones that had never passed words like Skype or FaceTime down their wires, a length of canvas draped across a rotating drum which made a noise like a stiff wind--whatever worked to provide aural texture to a radio performance was fair game in the hands of a skilled Foley artist. Ware, a seasoned vocalist and guitarist, had never played a shoe or an antique calculator before, but he's so talented you won't be able to tell.

I admit that I wasn't expecting much from the character of Ruby. When Nicole Angeli first appeared on stage with an old bucket and a mop, I was immediately reminded of Carol Burnett. And like so many people who underestimated Burnett, I quickly learned not to judge Angeli's quirky cleaning lady too quickly. She was surprisingly good at playing the villain, Mr. Potter. Her zeal at doing something more interesting than dumping the trash took the station employees by surprise, but you could see their reactions change as they realized she was holding her own with the likes of professional radio man Chester Collins. Between lines, Ruby kept trying to get her janitorial duties accomplished, mopping up behind Ware's Floyd Rogers as a bucket of water used for a sound effect splashed on the studio floor. It's the hallmark of a good actor or actress who can make you pay attention to them even when the spotlight is pointed elsewhere. Well done!

Finally, Abraham Shaw was a fantastic George Bailey. He projected the warm, family-oriented friendliness you've come to know and love when you watch Jimmy Stewart every year. He seemed to have flawless chemistry with everyone: heartfelt tenderness for Reve Like's Mary, surprise mixed with a little exasperation when he meets his guardian angel, Clara, played by versatile-voiced Mindy Shaw, and plenty of anger for Angeli's contemptuous Mr. Potter. Like Angeli, I've somehow missed seeing Shaw perform before, but now that I've seen his talent on display I'll be on the lookout for him at future shows around town.  

Behind the scenes, Julia Flood's crew put together a fine show, highlighted by Jamie Perkins set design and Lou Bird's period-evoking costumes. I don't know how many time capsules Katie Orr had to break into to find all the props and pieces for the Foley effects, but it was well worth it (I'm sure there was no actual Grand Theft Artifacts involved in her efforts, which actually makes it seem even more impossible)! Expert stage manager Sarah Rugo made sure the technical elements of the show went off without a hitch.

 It’s a Wonderful Life runs through December 15, with performances at 7pm on Fridays, 4pm on Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays (no performances on November 29 or December 14). The program is only 50 minutes long with a 10 minute questions and answers session with the cast immediately following. Everyone should be able to fit this one hour gem into their busy schedule! How many other holiday film traditions can you witness live and in less than half the time of the movie? Heck, you’d have time to fit in a screening of Frozen 2 before you get serious about your holiday shopping.

During the week, Metro Theatre Company is happy to perform for local schools! Personally, I wish I had been exposed to theatre much earlier, so give your students the gift of the arts this holiday season. If anyone is interested in bringing this hot take on a cool Capra classic to their school, please visit http://metroplays.org for more information. Artistic Director Julia Flood, Managing Director Joe Gfaller, and everyone at Metro Theatre Company would be delighted to discuss the details for a field trip to the Grandel Theatre (they are also happy to bring some of their shows to your school, but this one would be hard to pack, move and set up quickly). Look under the “For Educators” tab on their website.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0