A WONDERFUL LIFE at Cohoes New York 2011
Reviewed by Gail M. Burns

I first saw this 1986 Sheldon Harnick/Joe Raposo musical adaptation of Frank Capra’s iconic 1946 film in 2006 at NYSTI , and I found it worrying, as I prepared to see it again at Cohoes, that I had no musical memory of the show except for the lively Charleston number in the first act, which is completely peripheral to the plot.

In the intervening five years I have STILL not managed to watch the film all the way through, so I cannot tell you how this production stacks up to the original in terms of faithfully recreating the look of key scenes. The only one that I am really familiar with is Zuzu at the Christmas tree, and that didn’t look right at all from where I was sitting. But the audience went crazy for adorable Belle Babcock as she proclaimed “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings” and cheered as Clarence (Kelly Briggs) proudly displayed his new pair of pinions.

Only trouble was it took two hours and twenty-five minutes to get to those warm and fuzzy moments – and all that while the story of the continually frustrated and embittered George Bailey was constantly interrupted, bogged down, and side-tracked by a bunch of boring music. There was no music in the film, so there are no familiar tunes that everyone is dying to hear, and sadly Raposo – who penned some of the most memorable music of the late 20th century – failed to come up with any winners here. How could the man who wrote the opening themes for Sesame Street and Three’s Company and such classics as “Bein’ Green” and “C is for Cookie” come up a cropper? Possibly because the oh-so-nice people of Bedford Falls, NY, are not nearly as interesting as the Muppets.

“I’m stuck here in this mudhole for life, doing the same dull work day after day. Other men are leading exciting lives, but I—well, I’m just a small-town bank clerk that even the army didn’t want. I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will.” – Philip Van Doren Stern

This really is the root of the problem. Bedford Falls is an incredibly dull place and George Bailey really does get the short end of the stick – except for the perfect and beautiful wife he somehow manages to acquire. His life is not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn’t wonderful either. It’s completely normal. Whoop-dee-do.

The short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, on which the film was based, (quoted above), tells only the story of George Bailey’s Christmas Eve suicide attempt and his glimpse of how life would have progressed if he had never been born. A series of screenwriters churned out script after script for the film, which was to have starred Cary Grant, and the end result, although it begins and ends on that Christmas Eve in 1945, goes back in time to tell us all about George’s adult life. The film was a box office disappointment when it was released, and has only achieved sentimental favor over the years through frequent television airings and the wonderful performance of the incomparable Jimmy Stewart.
The one thing you are guaranteed in any production of this musical is no Jimmy Stewart. And what’s an actor to do? Play Jimmy Stewart? Bad plan. Create an entirely new George Bailey? Not what people plunked down their money to see. End up as a bland cipher sucking the life out of the center of the show? Pretty much your only option, and one which Brad Heikes tackles gamely at Cohoes.

The very pretty Caroline Galvez plays Mary, who bears the brunt of the singing in this show. She sings sweetly and smiles broadly, and there is absolutely no chemistry between her and Heikes at all.

John Noble brings no menace to the role of the evil Henry Potter, who should be a perfect stand-in for the corporate bad-guys we are currently Occupying everything to oust. We should be able to take great glee in booing the old codger, but Noble’s performance is barely boo-worthy.

Kelly Briggs is charming as Clarence, Angel Second Class, and his solo “Wings” is one of the better songs in the score, but director Jerry Christakos has him spend way too much time staring goggle-eyed out at the audience as Head Angel Matthew (Mark Rosenthal) demands that he concentrate.

I am confused as to why the Head Angel’s name has been changed from Joseph to Matthew, and why there are only three Bailey children here instead of four. That was not the case in the NYSTI production. Has someone named Joseph done something awful in the last five years? Joseph is my favorite Holy Family member and I think his name is a fine one for an angel. Better than Clarence at any rate. And why does Matthew/Joseph devolve into a lighting effect for most of the second act?

The dwindling size of George and Mary’s family probably has more to do with available talent than with any desire to make a statement about family planning or global over-population. But C-R Productions does a lot of excellent youth theatre work and therefore always has talented youngsters at their fingertips. Here Chezmin Sheehan as Beth and Aidan Fecko as Tommy join Babcock to form a charming trio. Their only real purpose is to sing a sappy little Christmas song in the final scene, but they do that very nicely.

John Baker is miscast as bumbling Uncle Billy Bailey, as is Jesse Coleman as Sam Wainwright – although the latter does have that Hee-Haw bray down pat.

My favorite actor on the stage was Marc de la Concha as cab driver Ernie and a member of the ensemble. He had pizzazz – something this whole endeavor was sorely lacking. He and Patrick White as police officer Bert made an hilarious Mutt and Jeff team. Yes, the Sesame Street Bert and Ernie are named after this duo. Another Muppet cross-over for Raposo.

The costumes are Jimm Halliday creations on loan from the Mac-Haydn costume collection and they are ALL wrong for this show. They are too colorful and theatrical. This show is about small-town folks in tough times (the show opens in 1928 and we all know what happened in 1929!) No one in Bedford Falls tap-dances or wears sequins. Heck, in the movie they were all in black-and-white and it suited them. Like all Halliday costumes they move very well, but this is not a big dance show.

Christina Williams’ set design was vague and I found her over-use of the revolve annoying. Did this production really need a revolve? I would have gladly traded whatever the rental on the turntable cost for the same on more appropriate costumes.

One production aspect Cohoes always does well is the music. I love that the singers aren’t miked, and their little pit band – “orchestra” is rather a strong word to use for five musicians – always makes a big sound. Welcome to Brian Victor, who boasts an impressive set of credentials, as he makes his debut conducting at Cohoes.

I really don’t get this mania for seeing your favorite movie performed live on stage. For generations it worked the other way around and I liked it a lot better. If you want to see your favorite movie just buy or rent it on DVD. You can watch it over and over, pause it, replay your favorite scenes. It will always be exactly the same, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed will never die, and your memories will remain unsullied by the awkwardness of translating film to stage and the disappointment that seeing different actors may bring.

No doubt that this is a weak show to start with, but the NYSTI production made it entertaining. From my point of view, the only good thing about this production of “A Wonderful Life” is that it’s not “A Christmas Carol.”

C-R Productions presents “A Wonderful Life” from December 8-18 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street, Cohoes, NY 12047. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets $25-$35. Performances are scheduled Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Call the Box Office 518-237-5858 ext. 1 or visit the Cohoes Website: to purchase tickets.

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