Review: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

By Larry Laneer
December 9, 2019

Pollard Theatre Company has revived It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from last season. I see a few changes from the previous staging. But the production is still so far off the mark, it could be accused of false advertising.

PTC put its long-running A Territorial Christmas Carol on hold last year, replacing it with It’s a Wonderful Life. On paper, this looks like a great idea. The playwright Joe Landry adapted Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” and Frank Capra’s 1946 film into this stage version. Landry sets the play in the late 1940s, when dramas were performed on radio before live audiences. The actors wear period clothing, read from scripts, and a sound-effects man provides slamming doors, splashing water, breaking glass, punches to the jaw, among numerous other noises.

I saw this play at the University of Oklahoma in 2006, so I can vouch for the script’s worthiness. In fact, it’s great fun to see actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in conversation with themselves, and the clever ways sound effects are created. If you close your eyes, you can hear the show as if it’s on the radio. That’s the point of Landry’s adaptation. Radio dramas take place mainly in audience members’ imaginations.

The PTC production begins true to the script, following the movie storyline. George Bailey strives to save the family savings and loan in Bedford Falls, New York, and gets into such a mess, he’s thinking of ending it all. He wishes he’d never been born.

But about an hour into the show, director W. Jerome Stevenson spoils the magic of a live radio drama by inexplicably inserting an intermission into the production. Radio dramas do not go off the air for 15 minutes, so audiences can take care of business or buy drinks at the bar. What I guess would be called the “second act” takes up where the story left off, but before long Stevenson completely abandons the live radio play conceit. The lights change and the actors put down their scripts and go off microphone, performing as if this were a conventional stage play. Oddly, the sound-effects man continues his work.

It took me a while from last season’s production to figure out what Stevenson is doing. The switch away from the live radio play comes in the scene where the angel, Clarence, saves Bailey from doing away with himself by drowning and, then, shows him what would have happened if he had never been born, Bailey’s expressed wish. In the movie, this scene is fantastical. Angels do not come to Earth and show people what life would be like if they’d never been born. Stevenson seems to be trying to achieve the same fantastical effect by changing the production from a live radio play to a 21st-century stage drama.

Landry has not written the script this way, so why Stevenson would make these intrusions is beyond me. Throughout the production, Stevenson lays a heavy hand on the show. He has actors constantly moving around the stage to different microphones and has them pantomime action in the script (such as eating or talking on telephones). Would radio actors do these things?

Stevenson is the director; he can do whatever he wants.  But some fine performances are lost in the superfluity. Joshua McGowen plays a credible George Bailey, although you may wonder why the upstate New York character sometimes lapses into a Southern drawl. James A. Hughes is terrific as Old Man Potter and in several other roles. Kara Chapman and Kris Schinske Wolf play multiple females. The always-solid David Fletcher-Hall is Clarence, the angel second class. Timothy Stewart does a fine job in several roles. So, you see the production has a highly qualified cast.

This play is an excellent fit for PTC. The theater makes a realistic setting as a radio studio. If the company would do the script as a live radio play, replace the recorded music with a musician (an organist!), make the sound effects even better than they are, and let the actors focus on creating characters without a lot of extraneous running around, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play could be a highlight of any theatrical season. But, alas, it is now an opportunity missed.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through December 22
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

 

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Joshua McGowen, Kara Chapman, and Jared Blount in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Photo by Jennifer Jones

By Larry Laneer
November 27, 2018

Nothing lasts forever, and Pollard Theatre Company in Guthrie has changed a generation of theater history. They’ve replaced the seasonal A Territorial Christmas Carol with It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Although the change is a good idea, the result has some serious flaws.

Pollard says this show is a “temporary departure” from A Territorial Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Dickens set in Oklahoma Territory, which they’ve been staging since 1987. This departure was prompted by the death earlier this year of PTC’s long-time Scrooge, the great James Ong. But it was time for a change anyway. It’s hard to keep anything fresh for 30 years.

Adapted by Joe Landry from a 1943 short story titled “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern and the 1946 Frank Capra film, the show’s conceit is the Pollard Theatre audience plays the studio audience for a live broadcast over station WBFR in the late 1940s. The actors wear period dress, read from scripts, and sing commercial jingles. A man does sound effects in full view of the audience. “On Air” and “Applause” signs hang at the back of the stage. It’s a great idea for a play, and the Pollard Theatre is an excellent space for it.

The cast plays characters who are actors performing the radio play and characters in the play. Thus, Joshua McGowen plays the fictional actor Jake Laurents who plays the character George Bailey. Got that? McGowen does a fine job, except when his voice inflections sound like James Stewart, who played Bailey in the movie. It’s hard to say if McGowen does this intentionally.

Other actors play multiple roles, sometimes in scenes with themselves. Timothy Stewart is Uncle Billy, who almost single handedly crashes the family savings and loan company. James A. Hughes plays the miserly Potter. As Mary (the Donna Reed role in the movie), Kara Chapman gives an appealing performance. David Fletcher-Hall is Clarence the “Angel Second Class” who earns his wings in the end. Jared Blount serves as the busy sound effects man.

Scenic design by James Hughes and Michael James credibly reflects a late-1940s radio studio. It’s sort of art deco with two wonderful antique light globes hanging above the stage. Sound-muffling carpets lay strategically on the floor. The microphones come close enough to period authentic. James also designed the costumes. The men’s suits don’t much resemble 1940s wear; the women’s dresses and hats look about right.

But this production fails in those details that separate an okay effort from a top-notch one. Generous theatergoers might forgive PTC for the recorded music, but wouldn’t a live organist—like they used in radio plays—be much better? And it would be nice if the cleverly done sound effect of Bailey plunging into the river weren’t almost drowned out by that recorded music.

One scene calls for a child actor to plunk out a tune on the piano. No instrument is on stage, so the actor sings the tune and imitates playing a keyboard. The stage has plenty of room for a spinet piano.

If you’re doing a sound effects show, you can’t cheat and use recorded sound effects. At one point, a loud recorded thunder clap booms while the sound effects man appears to shake a thunder sheet (a large thin piece of metal that’s been used at least since Shakespeare’s time to simulate thunder). Why not just sound the thunder sheet?

Why director W. Jerome Stevenson has actors move around the stage to different microphones is never clear. Would radio actors do that? And it’s so disappointing when he inserts an intermission into the show. Radio plays didn’t stop for 15 minutes of dead air. Landry did not intend the show to be done with an intermission (although he provides for adding one); the production would run less than 90 minutes without it. This unauthentic interruption greatly lessens the experience of seeing a radio play.

The scene where Clarence takes Bailey back to Bedford Falls to see what life would be like if he were never born completely changes character from the rest of the play. For one thing, the production ceases to be a radio play as the studio disappears, and the actors go off microphone like they’re doing a stage play. Why the adaptor or director would stage the scene this way is beyond me.

Pollard needed to retire A Territorial Christmas Carol or do it in alternate seasons with something else. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play would be a nifty alternative. In this season of peace on Earth and good will toward earthlings, theatergoers might want to give PTC a chance to make amends with Wonderful Life and give it another go in future seasons. It could be a worthy successor to Dickens in Oklahoma Territory.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through December 23
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
$30
405-282-2800