ORLANDO — It’s hard to believe that the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a box office disappointment when it premièred in 1946, and that post-war audiences initially shunned the inspirational story of George Bailey and his life in Bedford Falls, N.Y., that begins one Christmas Eve when he’s contemplating suicide.
It’s also fascinating to note that “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has since become one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time, was also one of the first true cult movies, appearing at revival movie theaters for years during the holiday season – long before movies like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” were claiming the cult title.
Of course, television gave new life to the movie and you’d have to live in a cave not to find it readily available on the small screen this month. It’s also interesting that this main story has become a favorite as well of community theaters, an increasingly popular choice for a Christmas production.
Watching the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s new production, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” it’s not hard to figure out why this story is catnip around the holidays for those providing entertainment. In George Bailey, we have an Everyman that any of us can relate to, a man growing up in small city who gives up his dreams and ambitions to help other people worse off than he is through his family’s humble savings and loan business. George ultimately decides that his life was a failure because he never accomplished anything monumental.
It takes the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence, to show George how worse off everyone he knows would have been if he had never been born.
By the uplifting ending, whether we’re viewing it on the big screen, from the comfort of our own living room on TV, or in a theater like Orlando Shakes, the message that no man is poor if he has friends is impossible to resist, and you will surely feel a strong emotional tug from it.
The movie, taken from a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift,” has also inspired numerous stage adaptations, including a musical. I’ve seen local stage versions that employed a giant cast to portray every familiar character in the movie, but the Orlando Shakespeare opted for a different script. Adapted by writer Joe Landry in 1997, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” presents the George Bailey story as a radio show being done in the 1940s. Five actors play all of the characters – essentially providing every voice in the movie. There are interesting advantages, and disadvantages, to this approach.
The play is set in a radio station doing a Christmas show, an adaptation of the classic movie. So we get to watch five actors playing five radio performers portraying characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
That includes Freddie Filmore, host of the radio show, and fictional actor Jake Laurents playing George Bailey.
Whereas straight adaptations of the play recreated Bedford Falls on stage, from the Savings & Loan to the home George and his wife Mary share, this one is set entirely in that radio station. We watch the actors standing in the studio, speaking into the microphones during the broadcast. There are times when visually, the play seems stilted as the characters don’t move around much, and it sometimes gets a bit confusing figuring out which “Wonderful Life” character each radio actor is portraying — especially when a single actor has to switch back and forth between two or three voices having a conversation at the same time.
It’s also a bit harder to make an emotional connection to a radio performer we know nothing about reading lines from a script into a microphone, then being asked to relate directly to George Bailey, his wife Mary, or Clarence.
But this version is also, in many ways, more comical than others. It provides a fun look at the way radio once operated – with commercials in-between the program – and does something that theater in general also strives for: it asks the audience to use their imagination as the story moves along. It’s a great delight to watch the radio station’s sound effects man rapidly providing us with everything from the sound of wind and snow to a train running by.
In the end, it works as a moving and emotionally-stirring version of the classic movie, thanks in part to the power of the original story, but also to the clever way that this version demonstrates its strength over various mediums.
The cast is excellent in the tough task of not just playing actors who are portraying other characters, but also their ability to juggle multiple roles. Duke Lafoon does a fine job playing George, a challenging role for any actor who has to compete with the memories of the incomparable and legendary Jimmy Stewart, and he’s likeable from the start in the role.
But the real scene stealer here is David Edwards, who not only plays Freddie Filmore as an announcer with a grandiose and booming voice, but also has some of the movie’s meatier supporting roles to provide the voices for, from God to George’s father, to the villainous Mr. Potter. Edwards is a thrill to watch, and listen to, throughout the entire show.
Does it work, in the end? As the cast came on for the final bow, I counted the number of people in the audience shedding tears and pulling out the hankies. Myself included, there were plenty. Now that’s a hit version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The Orlando Shakespeare Theater is at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando. The show runs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 29. Tickets can be reserved by calling 407-447-1700.
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