‘It’s a Wonderful Life’… and the live radio show’s not bad, either

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured (left to right): John Keabler as George Bailey and Susan Maris as Mary Hatch. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured (left to right): John Keabler as George Bailey and Susan Maris as Mary Hatch. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
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Do the words “Zuzu’s petals” make you avoid all television between Thanksgiving and New Year’s?

You know what we’re talking about.  It’s a Wonderful Life was lovely the first hundred times, but …

Listen, you might want to take a chance on It’s a Wonderful Life, A Live Radio Play, which runs through Dec. 31, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.

As the title implies, this is a staged radio production of the familiar story, set in a 1940s station during the holidays.

Director Doug West and Adapter Joe Landry have managed to give a fresh coat of paint to this well worn classic, staying true enough to the original to please the faithful while reminding those of us who have strayed why Life was so Wonderful in the first place.

For new visitors to Planet Earth, a summary:

It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 Frank Capra movie that asks viewers to contemplate a world without themselves. A financial crisis on Christmas Eve prompts George Bailey, played with skittish frenzy by Jimmy Stewart, to wish he never had been born. An angel grants his wish, and George discovers how the tapestry of Bedford Falls unravels without his thread.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured (left to right): Elizabeth Colwell as Violet Bick, John Keabler as George Bailey, James Michael Reilly as Ernie, and John Ahlin as Bert. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured (left to right): Elizabeth Colwell as Violet Bick, John Keabler as George Bailey, James Michael Reilly as Ernie, and John Ahlin as Bert. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

Now, back to our review.

Because the Madison version is a radio play, actors perform multiple roles. Watching their madcap transformations (which they often accomplish via a swift change of caps) is great fun.

Clearly, West’s background as the Shakespeare Theatre’s “Stage Combat Instructor” was put to good use choreographing the rapid-fire action, which is embellished by live Foley sound effects from Warren Pace and exhortations from the fictional emcee (Leavell Javon Johnson) for audience participation.

Friday night’s crowd responded with lusty boos aimed at Mr. Potter, played with Orson Welles-ean gravitas by John Ahlin.

 IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured (left to right): John Keabler as George Bailey and John Ahlin as Mr. Potter. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured (left to right): John Keabler as George Bailey and John Ahlin as Mr. Potter. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

The studio–“WBFR”–is like a 10th actor; Production Stage Manager Kathy Snyder and her team deserve special kudos for this dreamy passport to yesteryear.

Elizabeth Colwell and Tina Stafford each are a hoot ping-ponging, respectively, from sexy Violet Bick to cute little Zuzu, and from George Bailey’s matronly mom to Zuzu’s piano-plinking sister Jaine.

Andy Paterson does not take many liberties with Clarence, the angel who [SPOILER ALERT!]  gets his wings. Through the magic of theater–and the power of the movie, burned into our collective memory screens like a test pattern left on overnight–one feels wet and clammy after Andy / Clarence pantomimes a dive into an icy river to “save” George Bailey.

In the film, Donna Reed portrays a demure, saintly Mary Hatch, sweetheart and wife of George Bailey. For this radio re-creation, Susan Maris injects fire and spunk. It works. She is irresistible.

The toughest job falls to John Keabler, as George Bailey. An actor cannot win in this situation.

Try to make an iconic role your own, and you risk the wrath of generations weaned on Jimmy Stewart. (Sean Connery is James Bond. Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter. And so on.)

Impersonate Stewart, and you lapse into caricature.

 IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured: Leavell Javon Johnson as Freddy Filmore. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY adapted by Joe Landry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Doug West. Pictured: Leavell Javon Johnson as Freddy Filmore. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

Keabler, who appeared onstage this year in The Merchant of Venice and whose TV credits include Madam Secretary and 30 Rock, walks a fine line here. At times, he channels Stewart’s tics. Yet the result is not disconcerting. This is an homage, after all, one in which the play’s the thing.

And the play moves fast–the second act gallops through the grim vignettes over which Capra lingers on film–and the radio presentation is leavened by hilarious commercials.

If the theater lobby sold Dux Toilet Cakes, we’re betting they would be stuffing a lot of stockings this Christmas.

Whether you fire up your TV again after seeing It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is up to you.

Bottom line: Thanks to this production, and last year’s entrancing A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey may become a holiday tradition for many folks.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, performances through Dec. 31, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison. Tickets start at $69. Call 973-408-5600.

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