If watching Frank Capra's "It’s A Wonderful Life," is part of your family's usual holiday tradition, you might consider gathering the crew together and traveling to Warwick to see the heartwarming production of "It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" at the Gamm Theatre. What a sweet, uplifting production this is, and what a perfect way to keep the spirit of the season aglow.
Since most of us already know the story of George Bailey and Clarence (his bumbling guardian angel who rescues him from the depths of depression on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve,) the familiar story will have no surprises. What is surprising is Joe Landry's lovely adaptation that asks the audience to imagine the story being told to a radio audience.
Set in Warwick in 1946, in the fictional WGAM radio station, this version, directed by Damon Kiely in his Gamm debut, features a cast of seven actors, most of whom play multiple roles. Standing before three large, tall, old time radio microphones, most of the characters dart back and forth, in and out of their various roles, while D. J. Potter, the very talented Foley artist, creates the real-time sound effects off to the side. The only actor who plays one role — and who remains pretty much stationary throughout — is Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella, who plays the lead role of George Bailey, and is the heart of the story. Sigh. So good is Estrella, that if you closed your eyes and listened, you might believe Jimmy Stewart was on the stage in front of you. I promise, he will melt your heart.
Before the play even began, glad tidings of comfort and joy filled the theater. While Emily Turtle — who (beautifully) plays play Announcer, Janie and Zuzu — sat at the piano playing Christmas Carols, most of the other actors, dressed in vintage garb, greeted audience members as they arrived with season's greetings, handshakes and hugs. There was Estrella, welcoming one group of people while Fred Sullivan, Jr., who plays (count the roles) Old Man Potter, Sam Wainwright, Clarence Oddbody, Bert, Schultz, Ed, Binky, Mr. Welch and the Bank Examiner, greeted another. On the other side of the room, Jeff Church ("the resident hearth throb,") who plays (count them) Harry, Marty Hatch, Ernie, Old Man Collins, Tommy, Horace The Teller, Nick, Bridge Keeper and Cop; greeting another group along with Madeleine Lambert who plays Mary Hatch and Rose Bailey.
After the welcomes, while the audience settled in, Sullivan and Church wandered through the audience handing out slips of paper and pens so people could write their own personal "instant messages" which were later read aloud, during the commercial breaks. And oh, the commercials. What a hoot! The real sponsors, like Greenwood Credit Union, and Rhode Island College, were featured and got to have their own personalized jingles.
Then came time for the Christmas Carols which the audience enthusiastically sang together — and this was all before the play began.
Then came the excellent performances of Estrella, Sullivan, Church and Lambert, along with those of Angella Lynsey Ford who played Violet, Matilda, Ruth, Mrs. Hatch and Mrs. Thompson and the talented Richard Noble who played Gower, Joseph, Bill, Man At Martini's, Peter Bailey, Dr. Campbell, Randall and Tommy.
Turtle, as Zu Zu, spoke in one of the most adorable voices I've heard in a long while.
Meanwhile, locals interested in seeing a closer version of "It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" can head to Mystic this weekend to see the Emerson Theater Collaborative's version of the play, directed by Anna Maria Trusky, at the First United Methodist Church.
Or see them both. After all, we can never get enough of such an uplifting story. A story that reminds us of the essential goodness of people and of the fact, that "No Man is a Failure who has Friends."