by Roseann Cane
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it may surprise you to learn, did not do well at the box office when it was released in 1946. Arguably one of the most cherished American movies ever made, it has since become an international favorite, traditionally watched during the Christmas season.
Capital Repertory Theatre’s current production, It’s A Wonderful Life: Live from the WVL Radio Theater, takes place at a radio station in 1948, in an unnamed small town in upstate New York. The premise: a live radio broadcast is in danger of being waylaid, the result of a snowstorm that prevents key players from commuting to the radio station. To save the show, some non-actors, including a Foley (sound effects) artist and an office assistant, join the two actors present to read the script, each playing multiple roles.
Obviously, the likelihood of patched-up performers and amateur actors pulling off such a project is very low. But the cast of four (and two musicians) is so charming and so entertaining that I had no trouble suspending my disbelief, nor did the cheering audience who rose at the end of the show.
Director Margaret E. Hall expertly steers her top-drawer cast as they navigate through a script that could become tiresome in less talented hands. The pacing is crisp and each of the four actors is thoroughly distinctive. As Foley artist Lee Wright, Carl Howell has an endearing, sweetly awkward quality that makes him the obvious choice to play the role originated by Jimmy Stewart, George Bailey. As Evelyn Reed, the boss’s daughter/office assistant, Elizabeth Nestlerode is a perfect foil for Lee. The two are infatuated with each other and too introverted to let on, but as Evelyn is called upon to play Mary Hatch, the woman with whom George falls in love, the two cannot help but collide in the most innocent, romantic way.
Wynn Harmon as soon-to-be-reformed cad H. Christopher Mays is often uproarious and always entertaining as he abruptly changes myriad roles, from the villainous Mr. Potter to Clarence the Angel to one of the Bailey children, and his perfect foil, the sultry, sassy Laurie Wells as Kitty Dayle, effortlessly shifts from bad-girl Violet to little Zuzu to a host of other characters.
As the radio actors are responsible for sound effects, we’re treated to an exhibition of Foley arts, which include a wind machine (a drum with a crank), footsteps created by hands inserted into shoes, a crash box, and much more. To add to the fun, the four sing authentic commercials from the era (and they all sing beautifully), accompanied by studio musicians Josh D. Smith and Harry Lumb.
Thanks to Evan Prizant’s costumes and Michael Dunn’s wigs, all of the characters look perfectly 1948-ish. Rob Denton’s lighting design and Rider Q. Stanton’s sound design enhance the experience gracefully. Set designer David McQuillen Robertson has provided some lovely, evocative details that would feel completely on target for a studio of that era, with one major problem. There is a very large, multicolored neon structure of Art Deco lines somewhat left of center stage. When I entered the theater before the show, I found the neon structure pleasing. Once the show began, however, the bright neon looming over the actors was annoyingly distracting; I couldn’t watch the action onstage without seeing the neon. It dominated everything else. I wish that the neon could have been turned off during the show and displayed only before the show and during intermission.
I don’t think I know anybody who is unfamiliar with the Capra classic, but I would imagine that the play would be confusing to someone who has never seen the film. Aside from that caveat, I think It’s A Wonderful Life: Live From WVL Radio Theater is a real charmer, sweetly upbeat holiday entertainment, and who among us couldn’t appreciate that during these challenging times?
It’s A Wonderful Life: Live from the WVL Radio Theater, adapted by WVR Repoley, based on the screenplay by Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett, directed by Margaret E. Hall runs November 22-December 22, 2019 at Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 North Pearl Street in Albany, NY. Choreography by Freddy Ramirez, set design by David McQuillen Robertson, lighting design by Rob Denton, sound design by Rider Q. Stanton, costume design by Evan Prizant, and wig design by Michael Dunn. Music Director: Josh D. Smith, Harry Lumb, bassist. CAST: Wynn Harmon, Carl Howell, Elizabeth Nestlerode, and Laurie Wells.
Previews for It’s A Wonderful Life: Live from WVL Radio Theatre take place November 22–24. Opening night is Tuesday, November 26. Regular performances continue through Sunday, December 22. Performance times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday—with matinees 3 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; and 2 p.m. Wednesday, December 4 Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl Street, Albany. Tickets range from $27–$67.50. Students with valid ID: $16 all shows. For tickets and information, call Tickets by Proctors, 518.445.SHOW (7469) or visit capitalrep.org.
At theREP, we aim to make theatre accessible for all. For It’s a Wonderful Life, we are proud to offer four options for hearing impaired individuals.
Saturday, December 7, 3 pm
This performance will feature a sign language interpreter. To request access to this section, please call our box office at 518.346.6204