It’s a Wonderful Life, the stage adaptation by Doug Rand from the great classic film by Frank Capra is on stage at Lyric Arts in Anoka. It’s an extremely faithful adaptation down to the opening showing a starfield and the freeze frame of George Bailey as an adult in his first scene. As I’m sure you all know, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey who has come to the day of crisis in his life. The show opens on a starfield and we hear prayers for George Bailey. The heavens hear these prayers and call up Clarence, the Angel Second Class to try and help George through his darkest hour. Before Clarence can help George he has to learn about him and what has led him to this moment. We journey along with Clarence and watch the key moments from George’s life. From Saving his brother after he falls through the ice while sledding, his courtship and marriage to Mary Hatch, and the events of the day that have led to all the prayers being sent. After getting up to speed, Clarence is sent down to do what he can to help George through this night. The way to show George that he matters and has lived a wonderful life is suggested by George himself when he says it would have been better if he’d never been born. Clarence arranges it so he can see what the world would have been like if he had never existed. We see in call backs to all the events of his life what would have happened to his friends, family, and town if he had not been there.
The original film is so tightly constructed that there isn’t a single throw away moment. Everything that happens either informs the characters or illustrates something that, had it not happened, would have tragic repercussions for either a character or the entire town. The play is nearly word for word the same and is just as well constructed. I very much liked the design and staging of the show. The set by Greg Vanselow contains flats on which different images and even pre-recorded video can be projected upon. It allows for us to easily imagine we are in downtown Bedford Falls, the school gymnasium, the Bailey House, and even the bridge from which George contemplates whether or not he might be worth more to his family dead than alive. Unlike a play, films change locations rapidly and scenes are frequently shorter than what you would usually have. To some extent the production uses video scenes to move the story along. This technique works in what it intends to accomplish in terms of moving the story along and staging scenes that would be difficult on stage. I like the idea, and how it was executed technically for the most part. The one thing I cannot understand is, if you are doing video to project of a scene, why you would use takes where lines are flubbed and or the action comes off as unconvincing. Why not just do another take and get the scene right? The show opens with a couple of video scenes and it leaves you with a sinking feeling. Again it’s a clever idea and technologically well executed it terms of how the projection appears on the set. It’s the right idea but the idea isn’t exploited nearly as well as it could be.
The cast feels rusty, which is understandable, most probably haven’t performed live since Covid-19 shut down the world. But there are some standouts. I thought Eva Gemlo was perfectly cast as Mary she had the sweetness and pluck making the character her own. Rick Wyman as Clarence and other roles was equally well cast, he seemed natural and found the right amount of humor in his line readings. Jennifer Ramirez who stepped in for Lois Estell as Ma Bailey was also very natural. I don’t know if she was an understudy or had to step in at the last minute, but either way without the slip in the program, you would never have guessed she wasn’t supposed to be there. Warren Sampson as Mr. Potter was also quite good. There were several members of the cast who played multiple roles most making them distinct and different enough that we kept them straight. Kayli McIntyre was the most successful in this exercise. Doni Marinos did excellent voice work but the characters looked too much the same. He played multiple characters in the Dance scene and the addition of hats or glasses or a wig would have gone a long way to selling the changes. The costumes by Rebecca Bernstein were good for the most part but this was one area where more was needed. There was also a distractingly too large of a suit coat on Peter Bailey that should not have been allowed onstage.
This brings me to George Bailey played by Raul Arambula. I don’t know what is going on lately but this is the third show in a row that has taken a beloved character and tried to alter the interpretation so radically that it ends up diminishing the show. Arambula, plays George alternately as someone who doesn’t take anything seriously, too broad. Then as someone who is taking everything too seriously, as if suffering from PTSD. I think that was intentional and to my mind it’s all wrong. George Bailey is not a character suffering from mental illness, he’s a man having understandable reactions to serious events. In the Director’s note in the program, Hannah Wienberg-Goerger calls this production a “holiday card”. That is exactly what it should be and is, in most ways. But, this ill advised attempt to make the end about mental illness somehow is unsuccessful and antithetical to the “holiday card” intention. The recent revival of Oklahoma! taught us that you could take a classic and by changing the interpretation you could change the meaning without altering a single word. In that case it worked and it gave us a show that reflected the world we live in now through the prism of a show almost 80 years old. It was almost as if Wienberg-Goerger and Arambula were attempting that with the second half of this play. For this material, and with what you should be trying to convey to the audience with this production, it’s inappropriate and misguided. What audiences who are coming back to the theatre after covid need is “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The material has such a strong message you don’t need to try and reconceptualize it for a modern audience. You’ve changed it from a play that celebrates the ordinary man who just needs his Guardian Angel to give him the time and clarity to understand the impact he’s had on those around him. Instead, they have tried to change it into a story of a man who has his mental illness cured by an Angel. This does not result in the same message.
I heard one audience member say at intermission “this is awful”. I don’t think that’s fair because there’s a lot of good work here as well. I think the adaptation is very faithful. The staging, the sets, and projection ideas are a great way to stage this. But it falls down in the performance and directorial concept. It’s hard to know when it comes to an interpretation of a character if it is the actors choices that do not work or the director’s vision that is at fault. But it feels like there was not enough attention paid by Wienberg-Goerger to what was happening on stage. Aside from the video takes used, there is a scene later on when a character is shown playing the violin, why didn’t someone tell the performer they need to try and make their motions while they fake the violin somewhat match the audio we are hearing. Another performer is capable of little more than reciting the lines, and not even that is done without multiple flubs. I love the Lyric Arts Theatre and I hate to write a negative review, but the bottom line is that the missteps outweigh the positives in this case and I can’t recommend this production. It’s heartbreaking when you see good ideas and good work undone. It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite film of all time. Maybe I’m being a little hard on the play because of that, I felt like I had put myself in the frame of mind to accept change and embrace a new interpretation. Maybe I just wasn’t able to do that.
It’s a Wonderful Life runs through December 19th for more information and to purchase tickets click here https://www.lyricarts.org/.