It’s a Wonderful Life
Its box office success in the third annual Soulpepper Family Festival — which this year includes three plays, two concerts and a magic show — points to the ever-growing hunger among GTA audiences for family-friendly holiday entertainment.
The twist in American playwright Philip Grecian’s 2003 adaptation is that the theatre audience is watching a live radio broadcast of a play closely based on the film script. This allows familiar material from another medium to be repackaged as live entertainment, as with the Potted Potter, Graeme of Thrones and One Man Star Wars shows that Starvox Entertainment currently presents in the GTA.
The story, for the unlikely uninitiated, is of a wonderful man named George Bailey who sacrifices many of his dreams to stay in his hometown and meet the expectations of his family and community. His guardian angel appears on Christmas Eve to help George appreciate the value he’s brought to the lives of the people around him.
Embracing this production depends on buying into the convention of watching a radio show being made while also accepting that this is not really happening. At one level, Albert Schultz’s production encourages us to buy into the artifice. Lorenzo Savoini’s splendid, lavishly detailed radio studio set and charming costumes (patterned knee-length frocks for most of the women, vested suits and ties for the gents) clearly set us in the 1940s.
The actors speak into stand microphones at the front of the stage; several others playing Foley artists work behind them (there are 16 in total in the company, including James Smith adding considerable atmosphere with piano accompaniment).
We get an insider look at how certain sound effects are generated: twist a bunch of celery and it becomes cracking ice; thwack the clip on a clipboard and it’s a slamming door.
Numerous other aspects of Schultz’s production toy with the fictional frame, to varying levels of effect. Some of it is pure showmanship: in a flourish worthy of Ross Petty, the radio broadcast’s ads include plugs for the Family Festival’s real-life sponsors as well as other of its shows.
The loose framing also allows for the participation in certain performances of local children’s choirs (on opening night, the Dixon Hall Music School) singing carols and wearing contemporary clothes. Their presence sets a sentimental tone (who doesn’t go “awwww” at kids singing, even if they probably could have cut a couple of the verses?) that the production attempts to maintain throughout.
Other attempts to draw attention to the artifice of the format are less successful, including the odd choice to play the final minute or so of the first act in a near-full blackout, save a spotlit radio at the side of the stage. This is perhaps to suggest the experience of listening to the broadcast without seeing the action, but it’s not explored long enough to have an effect other than being jarring.
There is also the hint of behind-the-scenes romance between the actors played by Gregory Prest (who in the radio play takes on the role of George) and Raquel Duffy, who plays George’s wife Mary, but again this is suggested without being fleshed out.
While Bonnie Beecher’s lighting skilfully isolates various areas of the stage at intimate moments, and suggests moments of celestial intervention by flashes and dimming, this adds to the question of whether we’re meant to understand ourselves in the radio studio or in a theatre.
For the performers, this must be a fun and challenging show to play, as they move between scenes that require emotionally and psychologically committed characterization, to one-line interjections by walk-on characters, to doing bird calls (Michelle Monteith and Oliver Dennis offer yeoman work in the latter regard). Monteith also memorably uses her verbal facility to move between playing sexy Violet, who is besotted with George, and the very young Bailey daughter Zuzu.
Stepping into a role so associated with the beloved performance of James Stewart is no easy task, but Prest brings his own rumpled charm to the part of George. Dennis is quirky and lovable as the angel Clarence; Diego Matamoros navigates well between the bewildered pharmacist Mr. Gower and the evil Mr. Potter, and Duffy exudes goodness as Mary.
Schultz’s production gestures in a number of directions without really settling anywhere and it’s nostalgia for the material that must carry the evening.