Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2006

On the way over the mountains to Troy my eleven-year-old nephew regaled me with tales of why his life was terrible. He had a good litany going and to listen to him his life was indeed nigh on to unbearable. It was amazing he managed to get out of bed every morning.

About two hours later I was watching “A Wonderful Life” listening to George Bailey give a similar recitation. “What is this man’s problem?” I thought to myself, until I remembered my earlier conversation. Life sucks and then you die. That’s one way to look at things, and there are days when we all fall prey to such thoughts. But in general life is pretty darned good, and that is the one and only message this cheerful musical has to impart.

Once again, my lifetime habit of only going to the theatre and never going to the movies has rendered me a cultural ignoramus. I confess that I have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life the 1946 Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart. Of course I know what it is about, but unlike most people in the audience, I didn’t have an ingrained mental image of what each scene should look like. I could have scurried out and rented the video before I saw this production, but I decided instead to read the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern on which the film was based, which is a sweet and effective tale.

There is a certain fun to a stage show that faithfully recreates live tableaux of iconic film images. I confess to shelling out a ridiculous sum of money the other year to see Monty Python’s Spamalot on Broadway specifically for the thrill of seeing the Knights Who Say Ni live on stage, and I was not disappointed. But even without a clear image of It’s a Wonderful life on which to base this assumption, I don’t believe director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder and her design team have set out to recreate the look of the film. Even the ultimate scene before the Christmas tree (which I have not been able to avoid seeing excerpted over the years) looked warmly familiar, but also different because a stage picture cannot bring you in for a close-up.

Of course this NYSTI production of the 1986 musical version is not only based on a well-loved film that most people know by heart, it is also an encore production for this company, which first produced the show in 1999 with largely the same cast and possible a similar scenic and costume design, so there are undoubtedly people in the audience who were looking for familiar stage pictures as much as they were seeking recreations of scenes from the film.

From what I have learned this musical version with a book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a score by the late Joe Raposo, is very faithful to the film, by which I assume that many favorite lines are taken verbatim from the screenplay and that the flow of the story is very much the same, except everybody sings and dances.

We meet George Bailey (Timothy Booth) in crisis and learn from the Angel Joseph (Byron Nilsson) that he is on the verge of suicide and it is up to his guardian angel Clarence (John Romeo), to save him. If he succeeds, Clarence will be promoted to Angel Second Class and get his wings. Joseph then shows Clarence the key moments in George’s life. With ambitions leave his hometown of Bedford Falls, NY, and become an architect, we first meet George as he buys a suitcase for a trip to Europe before starting at Cornell. We meet his family – mother Milly (Carole Edie Smith), father Tom (Ron Komora), absent-minded Uncle Billy (Joel Aroeste), and younger brother Harry (Steven Goldsmith), whose life George once saved – and we follow Harry and George to the high school Charleston contest where George’s buddy Sam Wainwright (David Girard) is introduced in an energetic dance number. We also meet the flirtatious Violet Bick (Mary Jane Hansen) and the girl with a big crush on George, Mary Hatch (Catherine LaValle).

George’s ambitions are thwarted at every turn, mostly by pure bad luck, but sometimes through the conniving of the greedy Henry Potter (John McGuire), his father’s business rival, and eventually George’s too. George never gets to leave Bedford Falls. He and Mary court and marry and produce four children: Beth (Gretel Wilson), Janie (Charlotte Gliserman), Tommy (Garrett McClenahan), and little Zuzu (Sophie Whiteman). George keeps his family’s Building and Loan Company afloat through the depression, doing good deeds at every turn for regular folks like Ernie the cab driver (David Baecker) and the immigrant Martini family (David Bunce, Cicilia Sedvall, Brett Essenter, Brian Sheldon, and Jesse Kissel).

In the end, when a clumsy mistake of Uncle Billy’s coupled with an evil deed of Potter’s brings the Building and Loan to the brink ruin, George prepares to end it all. But Clarence saves him and grants him his wish of having never been born. It turns out that the little world of Bedford Falls would have been a very different place without George Bailey, and when Clarence returns him to life again George hurries home in time to celebrate Christmas with his family, realizing at last that a life well-lived is its own reward.

That the NYSTI production looks and sounds just fabulous is no surprise. This company knows how to use its human and artistic resources wisely and never disappoints with less than professional productions. The score, while unfamiliar, is tuneful. Joe Raposo (1937-1989) may not be well-known as a theatrical composer, but just about everyone in America can sing either the theme he wrote for Sesame Street, for Three’s Company, or both. I personally was heard belting out his immortal C is for Cookie just the other day at my day job, much to the horror of my colleagues. Charles Kuralt once said “Joe Raposo taught America’s children how to sing.”

The thing that struck me as odd, however, was how little time the show spends with George Bailey himself. I assume that in the film George’s innermost feelings are conveyed as much through close-ups of Jimmy Stewart’s face as they are by the actual lines. On stage you can’t do that, but in a musical you can easily transfer the expression of those feelings into song and/or dance. But George only gets one real solo, and that doesn’t come until nearly the end of the second act. No wonder I was left wondering what this man’s problem was. Harnick and Raposo have taken no time to let me into George’s heart. If I only see and hear want is happening around George but not what is happening in him it hard to sympathize. I don’t know about you, but when I get in a funk, everyone else seems to have a perfect, trouble-free life except me. Well that’s how George feels but I’m not George and all I am seeing are his wonderful happy neighbors, his wonderful happy marriage, his wonderful happy family, and I don’t get it. Frankly, if the whole world wasn’t so familiar with the point this show is supposed to make, I don’t think it would succeed in making it at all.

But those are complaints about the property itself, about which NYSTI can do nothing. Everything they can do, they have done very well indeed. Booth and LaValle are appealing leads. LaValle has a lovely and well-trained soprano that Raposo’s music shows off well. Girard is a stand-out, as always. I have never seen someone dance the Charleston just like the characters in a John Held drawing before, and it was kind of fun. Kudos to choreographer Adrienne Posner and Associate Choreographer Jennifer Girard for that and all their good work keeping the cast kicking on such a steeply raked stage.

Romeo nearly steals the show as the lovable Clarence. How happy was the audience when Zuzu chirped out her famous line and Romeo entered in all his winged glory? Needless to say, Harnick and Raposo give Clarence his own solo number, aptly entitled “Wings” and Snyder has also staged a dramatic bit of physical comedy when Clarence rescues George from the brink, which Romeo performs extremely well.

There is not a weak link in the large, ensemble cast. As always, many young NYSTI interns and students affiliated with NYSI are given the thrilling experience of appearing in a professionally staged production, and as always, unless their youth literally gives them away, they blend in seamlessly with their more experienced colleagues.

I just loved Victor A. Becker’s innovative set and Betsy Adams excellent lights. A very simple and basically drab set was manipulated from scene to scene to represent a wide variety of locales, both indoors and out, in rapid succession. I was literally on the edge of my seat waiting to see how the look of the stage would change next. What fun!

My nephew and I were seated near the lively pit band under the supervision of Dennis Buck and they seemed to be having almost as much fun playing the score as we were watching the show. There is still a problem at NYSTI with the balance of sound and the lyrics were sometimes hard to hear.

This is a very enjoyable family holiday offering, with plenty of warm-fuzzy feelings and little overt religiosity. NYSTI is to be congratulated for providing a literate and entertaining alternative to the endless Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers that clog area stages at this time of year.

The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of A Wonderful Life runs through December 16 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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