Holiday classic wonderfully re-created on stage

Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2012, 9:34 am
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By Shane Brown
Why is it our most cherished and time-honored holiday stories are woeful tales of tragedy that would, were it not for the final 15 minutes, leave you with a sinking feeling in your stomach and little hope for mankind?

Think about it. "A Christmas Carol" is the somber tale of a man haunted by the ghosts of his past ... and present and future. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" recounts an innocent village tormented by an evil monster lurking in the mountain shadows above. "A Miracle on 34th Street" is the story of a potentially delusional old man who finds himself being both persecuted and prosecuted by an uncaring society.

And what of the most cherished of all holiday sagas? "It's a Wonderful Life" is the chronicle of one George Bailey, a plucky Everyman with a heart of gold, a helping hand for all in need, and an unbridled lust for life. Life then repays him by efficiently and repeatedly crushing his every dream until he's left a broken and suicidal shell of a man. Fa la la la la, indeed. Until the final act, when all wrongs are righted, warm fuzzies run amok and we all learn the real meaning of the holidays.

If I just spoiled the plot, you either a) don't have television on your home planet, or b) haven't realized the story's called "It's a Wonderful Life" and not "It's a Horrible Life." The 1946 Frank Capra film is arguably the most beloved and inspirational movie in the history of American cinema, and these days, it's as integral to the holiday season as mistletoe and chestnuts. And now we have an interesting new twist.

Last weekend, I was present at Augustana College's Potter Hall for one of the three stagings of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." A rare joint effort by WQPT and WVIK -- our local public TV and radio stations -- the production uses a script by Joe Landry that reimagines Capra's film as a vintage radio play performed in front of a live audience. The unique format will allow the production to be broadcast on both your TV (WQPT) and radio (WVIK) dials as we get closer to the holidays.

This could have been a scary proposition. A stage play based on a radio play based on a movie (especially one I've seen umpteen times) could have been about as exciting as watching paint dry. But thanks to a gifted director, a stellar cast, and some intimate staging, this production brought a lump in my throat I didn't think possible from little more than a handful of people gathered around a microphone. But this cast, a local theater all-star team if there ever was one, painted a Technicolor picture of Bedford Falls that occasionally even outshone Capra's tried and true black-and-white classic.

My biggest fear was I'd be exposed to a lead actor doing a hammy Jimmy Stewart impression. I needn't have worried. Mike Millar's George Bailey was definitely cut from the same cloth as Stewart's iconic performance, but never once descended into mimicry or caricature. Jenny Winn, fresh off her summer starring role as Kira in the District Theatre's "Xanadu," brought sincerity to the role of Mary Bailey, George's under-appreciated tower of strength.

That left the rest of the small cast to voice the umpteen other characters, a challenge clearly accepted with vigor. Erin Lounsberry, Scott Tunnicliff, Tamra McConoughey, and Michael Carron shared an entire movie's worth of roles with ease and realism. Special kudos have to go to Jason Platt, who not only portrayed the evil Mr. Potter with scene-stealing glee, but also got the tough duty of holding more than one conversation with himself under the guise of multiple characters.

But if there's one hero to the production, it was Tom Vaccaro, who spent the whole show racing from the microphone to a table laden with old-time radio sound effects. One minute he'd be George's brother Harry, the next he'd be creaking open a door, splashing a tub of water, or clinking silverware -- whatever it took to audibly set the stage.

The cast was rounded out by local musician (and, in full disclosure, fellow Dispatch/Argus writer) Jonathan Turner on live piano accompaniment, who at one point was tasked with a musician's worst nightmare: playing badly. In order to capture George's frustration with daughter Janie's patience-prodding piano practice, Mr. Turner had to play "Silent Night" over and over again with purposely bum notes and missed keys. The other light holiday piano fare was the perfect complement to the abundance of good cheer spreading throughout the audience.

Under the skillful hand of director Lora Adams, this ensemble somehow managed to turn a radio play into a must-see event. Hopefully the magic translates to the airwaves next month. Every year, I make it a priority to find the Christmas spirit, which gets harder every year in our commercial world, but it's not even December and I already can say: Mission accomplished. Attaboy, Clarence!

Tune in on TV, radio

The local production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" will be broadcast on WQPT-TV at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 and Dec. 25, and on WVIK 90.3 FM at 7 p.m. Dec. 23.


Local events heading

  Today is Friday, Sept. 19, the 262nd day of 2014. There are 103 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: Charles M. Osborn of this city, a lawyer of prominence, who voted for Lincoln in 1860 is now out strong for McClellan and will take the stump for him.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The George Fleming company had begun its dried fruit packing in a branch plant on 16th Street, Rock Island, employing nearly a hundred workers.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The cornerstone of the new Eagles home was laid. Building committee members were John Kobeman, Fred Ehmke and Frank Wich.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Former Kaiser Wilhelm, in exile, is sad as the Nazis march with communists.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Ninety-two members of the acappella choir at Davenport's West High School today accepted an invitation to perform at the New York World's Fair on June 13, 1965.
1989 -- 25 years ago: A Rock Island woman is one of 50 winners of $10,000 in cash in the Illinois State Lottery's "Celebration "89" instant ticket game. Dawn Loeffler was the third winner to be chosen through daily drawings that began Aug. 28 and will run 50 consecutive days.

(More History)