ORLANDO — The production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” now playing at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater isn’t really about the 1946 Frank Capra movie that starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the savings and loan executive who sacrifices his dreams to help his neighbors, and eventually learns he’s much richer than most others in town.
Well, let me back up: yes, this play does reenact the story of the 1946 movie — how George thinks he’s going to lose everything and go to jail after his Uncle Billy loses $8,000 in client cash deposits, and wants to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve. It takes the intervention of the angel Clarence to convince George that he’s had a very positive influence on the lives of the people of Bedford Falls, and that he’s had a very wonderful life after all.
But note the full title of this play: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” Written by Joe Landry, it’s an adaptation of an actual radio production of the 1946 movie, but it’s not set in Bedford Falls, and it doesn’t feature a huge cast that re-creates all the memorable characters from the Capra story. This production is set in a radio station, and this nostalgic, funny and clever play is actually about the old fashioned days when radio — before the arrival of television, DVD and the Internet — had the unique ability to capture the hearts and minds of the American listening public.
This delightful production takes the audience into a radio studio in the late 1940s, where the announcer, Freddie Fillmore (played by David Edwards, who has a marvelous and suitably grandiose voice for live radio), lets his listeners know that their production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is coming up, after some advertisements from their sponsors (some of the funniest moments in the play) and news items about President Harry Truman and so on.
Also in the studio are the four actors who will help Freddie play all the roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and, equally important, the sound effects guys who play a crucial role in making everything sound just right. This production does a nice job of balancing the humor of watching the radio crew recreate the classic holiday movie — and, of course, the nostalgia and warm and fuzzy glow that the Capra story itself always manages to evoke around this time of year, as a perennial Christmas favorite.
The small cast has a lot of fun showing us how actors juggled a boatload of parts — and do an excellent job of capturing of the voices of those loved movie characters — including Clarence, Old Mr. Potter, Ma Bailey, Ernie the cab driver, Violet Bick, Mr. Gower, Uncle Billy Bailey, and so many others — and keep up the pace in order to tell the entire story in about an hour’s time (plus commercials.) While the entire “It’s a Wonderful Life” story is there, more or less, there’s something artificial about how the story is told, because we’re watching actors reading lines into a microphone, and not, as I’ve seen many times, a play that recreates Bedford Falls and features a cast of more than 20 actors.
This one is great fun, though, because it sweeps us back in time to discover what radio productions were like in the 1940s, when radio linked American households together during the Great Depression, throughout World War II, and then into the prosperous 1950s. It was only then when every home suddenly needed a television set. The nostalgia in this productions revolves around not just the Capra movie, but also the world of radio itself.
The actors do a superb job here, and Edwards truly sounds like someone who, had he been born several decades earlier, could have been a major radio star. He also does a fine job playing numerous roles in the “It’s a Wonderful Life” broadcast, most memorable the bitter and greedy Mr. Potter.
Brandon Roberts, Sarah French and Natalie Cordone all tackle a long list of characters, and demonstrate some impressive vocal dexterity — Cardone, for example, is convincing as both the Bailey family’s small daughters and the elderly Ma Bailey, no small feat.
Duke Lafoon reprises the role he’s played here in the past, as everyman George Bailey, and he’s wonderfully effective — not only in creating a character that’s instantly likeable without seeming cloying, but also in not seeming at all like an imitation of Jimmy Stewart.
For those of you who cringe every time the movie gets played on television around this time of year — and we know you’re out there — and who hate having their emotions so masterfully manipulated for a round of tears, this production is likely to seem less heartstrings-tugging than the film itself. This is the ideal show for anyone who enjoys a nostalgic blend of holiday cheer and good humor, and the perfect holiday outing to catch as we get closer to our own wonderful life celebrations on Christmas Eve
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” plays now through Dec. 30 in the Orlando Shakes’ Margeson Theater, 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. To learn more, call 407-447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.