The premise of performing “It's a Wonderful Life” as a live radio play sometimes seemed a little forced, like applauding on cue, when the sign lit up, in its staging at Carpenter Square Theatre.
But enough of the drama and melodrama that made the Frank Capra movie a classic did get through to keep opening nighters entertained in the staging of the script, adapted by Tony Palermo from the 1946 film.
It was performed on a set based on a 1946 radio studio by 10 cast members, who got up to read their parts in front of tall microphones, under “applause” and “on the air” signs, with special effects created on stage.
David Burkhart brought just enough cluelessness and comic exaggeration, seasoned with a hint of Jimmy Stewart, to George Bailey, whose plans for world travel, college and great deeds keep getting sidetracked.
JJ Arends was appealing, without overdoing it, as Mary, the true-blue girl George courts after a graduation dance, who comes back from college to raise a family with him, despite the allure of nearby New York City.
Supplying a worthy, if nearly over-the-top, villain was Shawn Hicks as the banker who controls everything in Bedford Falls except the family savings and loan George takes over when his father dies, giving loans to people in need.
Filling multiple roles, as did everyone in the cast except Burkhart and Arends, Hicks also brought a solid if predictable stage presence to his portrayals of Officer Bert, the Sheriff, and a tavern owner with a heavy Italian accent.
Shannon Smith was most memorable as Mary's mother, listening in upstairs, to the three-way telephone conversation when Mary's other suitor from New York calls while George, “just passing by,” comes to court her too.
Catherine Wise managed to be marginally convincing as both George's mother and Violet Bick, the sultry town girl “unclear on the concept” of a romantic wilderness adventure, whom he later hires to work at his savings and loan.
Curt Rose filled many male parts well, including a cabdriver and the childhood friend George rescues from icy waters, foreshadowing George's own later near-death experience, poised to jump from the town toll bridge.
Giving the production a much-needed, otherworldly dimension was David Patterson, who had some good, broadly comic moments as Clarence, the often befuddled angel “second class,” trying to earn his wings by saving George.
Directed by Rhonda Clark, with one long and one short intermission, Carpenter Square Theatre's “It's a Wonderful Life, a Radio-on-Stage Show” is worth attending, especially for those who love old-fashioned holiday fare.
— John Brandenburg