Chicago Theatre Review
An Angel Gets His Wings
It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play – Brightside Theatre
The name George Bailey has become synonymous with Christmas, ever since Frank Capra’s holiday classic first began airing nonstop on TV during the 1980’s. Based upon “The Greatest Gift,” a short story privately published in 1945 by Philip Van Doren Stern, this tale of a man who sacrifices his own dreams to help his family and friends has become a timeless classic. Most audiences will be familiar with the 1946 Frank Capra film, which is just about as perfect as anyone can expect. But BrightSide Theatre’s production takes this classic one step further.
When audiences walk into the theatre at North Central College they’ll step back in time to the Golden Era of Radio. Cast members greet the playgoers, asking if they’d care to fill out an audiogram to be read during one of several commercial breaks during the broadcast. These can include birthday greetings, anniversary wishes or other personal messages of love and encouragement. Before the actual radio play begins, the audience is introduced to the talented five-member ensemble who will play all of the roles, including the on-air ads. They also provide all the sound effects at the Foley table and create the incidental and mood music on the studio upright. Finally, the cast warms up the audience with a short Christmas carol sing-along, and then the play begins.
The story has become so familiar that a synopsis really isn’t necessary; but if the film is unfamiliar, then this theatrical experience will provide a wonderful first exposure. Suffice it to say, however, that in spite of their knowledge the audience enjoyed a number of laughs and many choked back a few tears by the final scene. One of the challenges Artistic Director Jeffrey Cass nicely conquers is making a primarily audible experience visually interesting, as well. This is further complicated by the demands of the three-quarter thrust stage on which the play is performed. Mr. Cass skillfully stages his production, keeping his talented cast circulating between a series of microphones, in a way that guarantees every character is visible to the entire audience. He’s also directed this tightly-crafted piece at such a brisk pace that audiences barely notice the lack of an intermission in this 90-minute production.
Each talented cast member performs a wide range of roles with such vocal dexterity that if the audience closes their eyes they picture a far larger ensemble housed on that tiny stage. Joe Landry’s radio adaptation is both faithful to the Capra classic and yet economically provides every subtle nuance from the story. The original music and piano arrangements by Kevin Connors delivers just the right mood for this holiday fantasy. Jarrod Bainter’s period perfect radio studio instantly transports the audience back to a gentler time and place, while Jeanine Fry’s costumes help evoke the look and feel of the 1940’s.
The five-member ensemble performs with energy, humor and pathos. Resisting the impulse to impersonate Jimmy Stewart’s iconic performance, David Raymond captures all the boyish charm, warmth and determination inherent in George Bailey, making the hero of this Christmas classic uniquely his own. Daniella Rukin nicely creates a spunky, but loving Mary Bailey, the role made famous in the film by Donna Reed. Tin Penavic has the difficult task of serving as the radio program’s master of ceremonies while also playing, among other roles, God, both ornery villain Mr Potter and George’s good-natured but easily befuddled Uncle Billy. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between some of his characters, but Mr. Penavic makes the best of creating so many different roles.
Clarence, George’s guardian angel, is sweetly played by one of the production’s strongest actors, the versatile newcomer, Andrew Stachurski. He also portrays George’s brother Harry, as well as a variety of other character roles. Linda Lee Cunningham, another standout performer, makes an impression playing the sassy, flirtatious Violet Bick, as well as George’s stalwart mother and his innocent little daughter Zuzu. In addition to creating so many different characters, these two actors also provide the strongest vocals during the pre-show musical interludes and on-air commercials. And also, with the exception of Mr. Penavic, the remaining four actors demonstrate their skill at the piano.
A warm, homey, nostalgic feeling pervades the atmosphere of the theatre, partly a result of Jarrod Bainter’s fine lighting design, but mostly because of the sincerity and commitment of this fine acting company. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic hasn’t looked or sounded this glorious since it first appeared on the silver screen back in 1946. BrightSide Theatre’s production would’ve filled Mr. Capra will justifiable pride.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 28-December 14 by BrightSide Theatre at Meiley-Swallow Hall at North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth Ave., Naperville, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 630-637-7469 or by going to www.brightsidetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.