There are a small handful of films that age well. These films, some say, transcend time. It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra in 1946, is one of those films. It hits that remarkable pinpoint of sweetness and nostalgia that has made it a part of family Christmases for decades. Competing with such iconic cinematic chemistry would be nigh on impossible on stage, but Pacific Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life Radio Show manages to enhance, rather than compete with the original. It is, in a word, brilliant.
For those not familiar with the story, It’s a Wonderful Life follows George Bailey, a small town Building and Loan clerk who believes the world would have been better if he had never been born. On a cold Christmas Eve in 1946, George stands atop a bridge contemplating suicide. Filled with flashbacks to key moments in his life, the story is framed as a conversation between two angels, Joseph and the child-like Clarence tasked with showing George everything he has to live for.
In Peter Church’s It’s a Wonderful Life Radio Show that same story is re-told as part of a live radio broadcast complete with music, commercials and live sound effects. By moving the telling of the story into the radio studio, the cast has the freedom and flexibility to play with the script more than would ever be possible in a straight adaptation. Here they are both radio actor and classic character, and watching them move between the two creates such a feeling of palpable fun that it is impossible not to smile.
This show is a showcase for the remarkable range of its actors. Diana Squires is a vocal and physical chameleon who flips between hip-swinging Violet and pencil-pushing Cousin Tilly with the ease of a light switch. Chris Lam, whose singing is both beautiful and humorous, shines strongest in moments where the words are allowed to drip from his lips. His portrayal of Joseph, the wise senior angel, has the measured wisdom associated with a man twice his age. Finally, John Voth, playing George Bailey, astounds as his honey-toned tenor manages to evoke, without impersonating, Jimmy Stewart’s film performance.
While watching the Sound Man (Joel Stephanson) create live sound effects adds a layer of visual interest to the show, it also distracts from the emotion of key moments. The actors do such a phenomenal job of creating a story that transcends the auditory medium that certain sounds, like the saw that is just a touch too loud, undercuts their performances.
Its a Wonderful Life Radio Show is filled with an obviously profound love for the film, the story, and the period in which it takes place. It is a show that chooses to celebrate the effect the story has on people, rather than attempt to recreate it.
Watching the actors play, and dance, and laugh their way through the well-worn story underscores the sentiment of the film, and as the two worlds blend seamlessly together you can almost catch a flash of Jimmy Stewart’s lopsided grin hiding in the dark corners of the room. Even with a few dropped lines and sound issues on opening night, it is a show that fits neatly into the box of treasured holiday treats you want to share with your loved ones. Not to be missed.
Its a Wonderful Life Radio Show by Peter Church. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 W 12th Ave, Vancouver) until December 30. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.