WINTER HAVEN – Anyone who makes it a tradition to watch Frank Capra’s classic 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” every year around the holidays knows that it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it, the sheer exhilaration of George Bailey’s final discovery of how much he means to his friends, family and neighbors makes it impossible not to be pulling at the tissue box by the end.
If you love the movie, you know the final scene never fails to tug at your heartstrings and overwhelm your emotions.
It’s ironic that a few days before I set off to see Theatre Winter Haven’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I caught the film on television and watched it again. And while I have seen it more times than I’ve eaten at fast food restaurants, knowing what’s coming never prevents me from getting completely caught up in the life of George Bailey, the everyman in Bedford Falls who sacrifices his dreams of an exotic life of traveling the world or being a prominent architect to run his family’s small savings and loan. George begins the movie in terrible despair, ready to throw himself off a bridge on a cold Christmas Eve because he feels his life has been a failure. It takes the intervention of Clarence the angel to show George just how great his impact has been on the lives of others.
It’s impossible not to relate to the movie’s emotional pull, because who among us hasn’t at some point questioned the direction our lives have taken and wondered if we could have done things better, or accomplished more? And as Capra and lead actor Jimmy Stewart so brilliantly point out, it’s easy to miss the very little things that we do that can have such a powerful impact on others, even if we don’t recognize it at the time. It’s the ideal message that being selfless isn’t for suckers and chumps after all.
It’s understandable why a community theater would want to produce a stage version of the story around the holidays, even if the movie is readily available for showings on television, on DVD or at revival theaters. The big challenge, of course, is how do you compete with audiences’ memories of the movie. If the theater can’t deliver the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, is a live version likely to pale in comparison?
I got the answer to that quite early on, in one of the play’s first scenes, when young George, just 12 years old, is working in a local drug store and discovers a letter his boss, Mr. Gower, just got, informing him that his son had died. When asked to deliver some medicine to a family with a sick child, young George panics, because he realizes Gower, overcome with grief, mixed up the ingredients and accidentally put a deadly chemical in it. But what should he do? This scene, played so beautifully by child actor Ryland Marbutt, was pretty much all I needed to know how effective this production was going to be. Long before the finale, this one scene had me caught up in the powerful emotion of the story. I was there.
That’s one part of the challenge of doing “It’s a Wonderful Life” on stage: figuring out if the movie works so well because of the basic story, or because it’s more an experience that offers a perfect combination of timeless actors, cinematography and everything else unique to film. Theatre Winter Haven’s production demonstrates that the basic story by author Philip Van Doren Stern — originally called “The Greatest Gift,” which he sent to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943 – works equally well on stage or screen, because it’s the perfect anecdote to the line about how nice guys finish last.
The other challenge, obviously, is how to recreate Bedford Falls and all those highly cinematic scenes on stage. Theatre Winter Haven does a great job here, essentially using a small, rotating stage on the larger one to evoke each scene rather than trying for overly ambitious set changes. A small desk helps bring to life George Bailey’s savings and loan without recreating the entire office, while something as simple as a bush and shrub perfectly recreates the moment when George and his lifetime sweetheart Mary walk home together from a high school dance.
And it’s that dance that provides the play with one of its best moments, as George and Mary begin to jitterbug, while a rival for Mary’s affection decides to play a cruel joke by opening up the high school gymnasium’s pool right behind them. If you’re wondering how they managed to create a pool on stage, well, check out the show. It’s a great scene, and hilarious to watch.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story of a regular guy who falls into deep financial trouble, and thinks he’s so hopefully messed everything up that he no longer has a reason to live. What he fails to understand if that if you’ve always been there for the people around you, they’re going to remember that, and be there when you need them, too. One of the reasons the movie is such a classic is Capra found his ideal everyman in Jimmy Stewart, who is unforgettable in the role.
Likewise, one of the reasons Theatre Winter Haven’s production of “It’s A Wonderful Life” works so beautifully is because of the casting of Derek Wyatt in the role of George. He makes no attempt to imitate Stewart’s performance, but instead gives us a George Bailey who is easy going, breezy, with a quick wit, and has a genuine concern for other people – the classic nice guy, at least until his world starts crumbling around him. Wyatt fits the role perfectly, and so systematically embodies George Bailey that he has you gripped from the very start. The theater was lucky to have found him.
The show has a cast the size of a few Third World nations, and they’re uniformly good, particularly Karissa Barber as George’s loyal wife Mary, Susanna Carey as George’s mother Ma Bailey, and Lori Wasson as the family’s cranky maid, Annie.
The movie is easy to catch this time of year. Just turn on your television set around 8 p.m. and flick the channels until you find it.
But see the Theatre Winter Haven version, too. The stage version is a heartwarming experience, beautifully staged and acted, and if this production doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, well – Bah! Humbug.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” runs through Sunday, Dec. 18 at the theater at the Chain O’Lakes Complex, 210 Cypress Gardens Boulevard in Winter Haven. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. To reserve tickets – which are $20 for adults and $17 for students — call 863-294-SHOW, email TWHtickets@aol.com, or log on to www.TheatreWinterHaven.com.
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