I confess I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard Water Tower was doing It’s a Wonderful Life as a live radio play, written by Joe Landry. Like so many others, I’m a devoted fan of the Capra film, and wasn’t sure what this treatment would do for the content. How could a chiefly verbal performance compete with the images that pervade memory? George and Mary’s first, spontaneous, intense kiss, the black bird squawking at the Building and Loan, George distraught at his dead brother’s grave, Zuzu’s petals? I am elated to report that It’s A Wonderful Life : A Live Radio Play is neither hybrid nor gimmick, compromise nor curiosity, but a stirring, warm and poignant presentation of the stirring saga of George Bailey’s epiphany, every bit as effective, on its own terms.
Upon entering the theatre space, Host Freddy Fillmore (B. J. Cleveland) welcomes you as an audience member to a live radio studio broadcast, around the 1940’s. The cast members arrive (Lydia Mackay, Jessica Cavanaugh, Jim Johnson, Matthew Laurence-Moore) greet us and each others, finding their chairs and scripts. The names of the stars they are playing are not listed in the program, but they are celebrities from back in the day. There are five players (including Fillmore) three men and two women, and they step up to the “hot mike” when one of their scenes comes up, each one doing multiple roles. Erin McGrew and Scott Eckert provide musical and SFX cues, Eckert using cornflakes, bells, coconut shells and McGrew playing the organ. There are a couple of breaks for commercials selling soap and (I believe) grooming gel.
Joe Landry originally created this radio play, when the economic logistics of transferring film to stage made that strategy impractical. It’s very entertaining to note how inventive and invested the actors are in the process of transmitting the story over the airwaves. The listeners outside “the studio” can’t see them, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The cast is versatile, radiant, energetic and amusing. And something else in this conception of Wonderful Life, something really extraordinary happens. It begins with Fillmore encouraging us to sing carols at the prelude, and laugh and cry during the live broadcast (being careful not to talk) once the show is actually ON THE AIR.
We begin to feel like participants in the sharing of the narrative. (maybe a little like Stone Soup or Fahrenheit 451?) Each one of us is involved in the process. It’s as if the actors, together with us, are creating the story from scratch. With a recipe of course, but our excitement as the story begins to take shape, is palpable and poignant. By the time George must hide Zuzu’s petals, to fix her special corsage, we’re with them all, 200%. This production is truly a vibrant and enchanting spin on a perennial classic. Don’t miss your opportunity to fall under its spell.
Water Tower Theatre presents : It’s A Wonderful Life : A Live Radio Play from November 24th -December 16th, 2012. Written by Joe Landry and Directed by Mark Fleischer. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6262. www.watertowertheatre.org