At Theatre Winter Haven, it’s a wonderful version of a classic holiday movie.

Theatre Winter Haven is now producing a stage version of Frank Capra's classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life." (Photo by Michael Freeman).

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.

Theatre Winter Haven is at the Chain O'Lakes Complex on Cypress Gardens Boulevard, near the new Legoland Florida theme park. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

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, or log on to

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No, it’s not your daddy’s Dickens, but with Wanzie, it’s an absolute riot.

"Wanzie's Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol" plays for the next two Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Footlight Theatre. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – Where do once popular celebrities go when their star has faded and public tastes have moved on to someone new? If you were around in the 1970s and were thinking “Hollywood Squares” or “The Love Boat,” that’s a good example for the sorry plight of those in has-been-land.
These days, those once-cookin’ celebs might settle for a brief reality show on cable or maybe just posting lots of YouTube videos, hoping one of them catches fire. Or they could try something else: a return to the stage. Assuming that Broadway isn’t interested, there’s always community theater, and if they can land a role on a stage in a big city filled with tourists – say, a city like Orlando – and at a place with a ready-made audience of campy humor lovers – say, a spot like the Footlight Theatre at the gay resort known as the Parliament House – chances are you’ve got your ticket to something good.
No wonder Carol Channing, an Oscar nominee turned sinking “Love Boat” survivor, would jump at the opportunity to play the lead role of Scrooge in Michael Wanzie’s “Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol,” even if she is a very last minute – try a few moments after the play has started – replacement for another actor who couldn’t make it.
It doesn’t help that Channing only knows how to play one thing – Carol Channing. Or that she persistently annoys Wanzie, the narrator of the Charles Dickens classic, by repeatedly calling him “Fonzie,” or that she’s replacing stud man Hugh Jackman, who had originally been hired to play Scrooge. When you have a room full of gay men who were expecting Jackman and get an aging Carol Channing instead, it could be a recipe for disaster.
Or, depending on how you look at it, an absolutely hilarious production.
The genius behind Wanzie’s decidedly twisted version of the Dickens classic is that it plays off the notion that celebrities – even the ones whose fan clubs include few if any twentysomethings, and who essentially milk nostalgia to land their next booking – simply can’t resist doing what they’ve always done, which is to be, act and perform the persona they created and milked successfully for so many years, until public tastes shifted and the gravy train developed lumps.
When Channing rushes in at the last moment, to rescue poor Wanzie from playing both the narrator and Scrooge, there’s a sidesplittingly funny exchange when she begins reading the wrong script – she had assumed that since this is Orlando, she’d be reciting the narration for Walt Disney World’s annual Candlelight Processional at Epcot. Wanzie is more than happy to angrily correct her.
The fact that Wanzie scores an even bigger laugh a little later with another Candlelight Processional joke is a testament to his great gift for comedic play-writing. And he sure does have fun with this one, giving us a fairly believable look at how some aging stars like Liza Minnelli, Rip Taylor, Lucille Ball and others, would react if they got to play a role in a community theater production of “A Christmas Carol.” The fact that all of it is so fiendishly funny doesn’t detract one bit from the fact that it all seems totally plausible. You have to ask, if given the opportunity to play the role of Tiny Tim, could Minnelli truly resist hogging the stage to belt out her version of “God Bless The Child?” Maybe, but I doubt this.
It helps to have some great actor/impersonators handling the roles. Hamburger Mary’s own Carol Lee is a riot as Carol Channing, getting her voice, mannerisms and giddy nature down pat, and having a blast as she makes every effort to hog the stage, often times seemingly oblivious to the insanity going on all around her. Miss Sammy, as usual, does some spot on perfect imitations of Cher, Lucille Ball and Barbra Streisand, and Gidget Galore scores some huge belly laughs as the Liza who hopes she won’t end up “like mama,” but later turns down an offer of a Pepsi because she decides to “stick to my coke.”
And then there’s the glorious Doug Ba’aser, who not only is a scream as Rip Taylor, but even better, has some of the show’s most hilarious moments in a near-silent role as Marlee Matlin. Just watching Ba’aser play the deaf actress, with the expressions he makes and the frantic gestures meant to be sign language, become painful to watch after a while, because you’re going to be laughing so hard that it hurts.
Wanzie’s version of “A Christmas Carol” has few if any sacred cows, takes no prisoners, is not for those easily who are easily offended … and it sure won’t make anyone think of the Disney animated version. But the truth is, with so much in the way of really good entertainment to pick from around here during the holiday season, this may be one of the top three events guaranteed to leave you feeling so, so good and to be smiling and laughing on your way out the door – not a bad way to get into the holiday spirit, after all.
And the truth is, Dickens never had it so good.
“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol,” also subtitled “A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle,” runs Saturdays through Dec. 17, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance and $20 at the door. To learn more, log on to Wanzie Presents.
The Footlight Theatre is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail in downtown Orlando.

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Before a crowd of 5,000, the Singing Christmas Trees come brilliantly to life.

First Baptist Orlando is now performing its annual show, The Singing Christmas Trees. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – David Uth, the senior pastor of First Baptist Orlando, stood on a nearly bare stage, behind him a silver curtain covering up precisely what the huge audience at the church had shown up for. Sensing their anticipation, the pastor smiled, and offered a quiz.
“You’re going to see the trees for the first time, and they are breathtaking in size,” he said. “They are about 40 feet tall.” Then he asked the crowd to guess how many lights it took to illuminate those massive trees.
Each time someone shouted out a number, the pastor smiled again, and hinted they needed to go higher … and higher.
Finally, he admitted the correct number.
“You are about to see 250,000 lights,” he said. “It’s a cool deal. The choir is assembling right now, and we are about to celebrate the joy of Christmas.”
The church at 3000 S. John Young Parkway once again is hosting its very popular annual Christmas concert known as The Singing Christmas Trees, offering a visually unique way of hearing a choir perform holiday classics that range from “Jingle Bells” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to “Emmanuel” and “How Great Our Joy.”
“Welcome,” the pastor said from the church’s enormous auditorium, “to the joy of Christmas.”
As he exited the stage, the orchestra began to play “The Joy of Christmas Overture,” as colored lights illuminated them. And then, the curtain rose, and two 40-foot Christmas trees, covered brilliantly in multi-colored lights, came to life – but not just from the light show that engulfed both of them. There are 14 rows in each tree, and seated in each row is the chorus of singers, who perform the songs of the season.
Knowing how eagerly the crowd was looking forward to the performance, Pastor Uth took a moment before the show to thank everyone for showing up.
“You could be home watching football or taking a nap,” he said. “But you chose to me here.”
At the same time, the pastor asked the crowd to remember the true meaning of this season, the birth of Jesus the Messiash.

The First Baptist Orlando church sells gifts like this wooden nativity set, but also strives to remind guests that Jesus is the reason for the season. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

Asking what makes this season special, Pastor Uth asked, “Is it the gifts, the music and the lights? No. It’s the gift of our Lord.”
That’s one of the reasons why First Baptist Orlando sponsors this event, he said, in the hope that those who are still seeking the truth about Christ will be moved by this show to the point of having faith in the one who died on the cross for their sins.
“One of the things we’d love to do for you as a church is pray for you,” he said.
The pastor also used the show to announce that First Baptist Orlando and the cast and crew of Singing Christmas Trees had partnered together to support Crucible Cares, a project that is committed to sending 100 care packages to an Army unit currently serving in Afghanistan. It’s a program sponsored by The Crucible Campaign, which encourages, equips and engages U.S. military personnel and their family members.
“Our goal this year is to send 100 packages to the troops,” said Doug Pierce, who founded this ministry. “We invite you to join us as we try to make an impact in the troops’ lives.”

The decorated Christmas trees in the lobby of First Baptist Orlando pale in size compared to the Singing Christmas Trees on stage in the auditorum. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

Through concerts, marriage conferences and special projects, the Crucible Campaign works to address the needs of the service community, which is why First Baptist and the Singing Christmas Trees’ cast and crew is supporting them, Uth said.
“They do a great ministry for the troops serving all over the world,” he said.
The church is also partnering with New Missions, which has served the nation of Haiti since 1983, to feed and educate children and provide them with free medical care.
“You have an opportunity today to sponsor a child from Haiti,” Uth said.
Before he spoke, there were instrumental versions of songs like “Joy To The World” performed on guitar and fiddle, to warm up the crowd. And then came the Singing Christmas Trees.
One of the singers in the chorus is Nick Murdock of Poinciana, who said it’s a joy to participate in this family-friendly show.
“This is my fourth year,” he said. “The auditorium holds 5,000 people, and it’s a great time and it’s exciting for me to be a part of it. It really puts you in the Christmas spirit, that’s what I like about it.”
Singing Christmas Trees continues next weekend, through Dec. 11. To learn more about this show, call 407-425-2555 or log on to Singing Christmas Trees.

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