It's not just because I had a hand in it (well, two, at the piano), but I genuinely felt the cast for the Augustana College live radio play of "It's a Wonderful Life" earlier this month more deeply and profoundly captured the story's characters than the currentQuad City Music Guild production of"It's a Wonderful Life:The Musical."
Don't get me wrong -- the hard-working, dedicated Guild cast certainly reflects the emotions and spirit of the classic holiday story. It's just it seemed the eight-member group that played all the characters for the radio version was more fully alive, colorful and in their exaggerated way, really got inside the heart of these people. At times, I dabbed tears from my eyes at Potter Hall; I never did at Prospect Park.
The Guild musical -- at about twice its length, nearly three hours and 23 scenes -- has the advantage in cast size, an eclectic, winning score, and a spectacular set, designed and primarily built by the tireless Mark Holmes (who also wears the black hat as old man Potter on stage).
The main set consists of realistic, sturdy-looking and tall building facades along the main street of Bedford Falls. There also are modular pieces that pull out to serve as settings for George's home, Mary's home, the bank and Bailey Building and Loan. In two climactic scenes at the end of the show, Mr. Holmes fashioned two beams of a bridge that angle down from up high and a bridge railing extends along the floor, in front of a black curtain.
Mr. Holmes somewhat is less successful as Potter -- he's got the stern, mean part down, but as an actor, he appears bland and lifeless, more a cardboard villain than what should be a man maniacally possessed to ruin this family and take demented delight in it.
As the guardian angel Clarence, Greg Golz nearly has a similar challenge on the good-guy side. His is a fairly flat, one-note performance of a childlike man simply seeking to help humanity. He's got one tone of voice that extends over the long length of the show, but makes a nice foil and balm to the tumultuous crises of George's life. Mr. Golz's bluesy "Second Class Angel" is one of many musical highlights in thefaithful 1998 adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film, written by Dove Award-winning composer Bruce Greer and lyricist Keith Ferguson.
As the protagonist (immortalized on screen by Jimmy Stewart), Nathan Bates is truly wonderful -- you can identify with his big dreams, his desire to make something of himself, and feel the crushing weight of responsibility as he repeatedly has his dreams deferred. Mr. Bates is on stage almost the entire show and he strongly embodies the confidence and frantic despair of the part. His affecting "My Life" numbers on the bridge are by turns poignant and pleading, and powerfully life-affirming.
The musical, under first-time director Deb Shippy, dispenses with showing us the Bailey childhood scenes (with Mr. Gower the pharmacist and George rescuing Harry from a sledding accident) and they are just passingly referenced in song. As a result, we don't feel the tragic side of Gower (who also lost a son in the story), played here by Gary Clark.
Reprising her sunny role as Mary (George's wife) is the lovely Jennifer Sondgeroth. The romantic scene of Mary and George walking home from the dance is one of my favorites and the sensuous samba "If You Want the Moon" ideally captures this newfound bliss and limitless possibility. Ms. Sondgeroth is a stable, sensible anchor for the production and she and Mr. Bates make a terrific team.
Other highlights for me include the tango "Bless You, George Bailey," sung by Mr. Martini (Steve TouVelle) and his wife (Stephanie Quade-Perry), and lilting choral waltz "Christmas Eve" (which echoes "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and includes bits of traditional carols). In thanking George for helping them buy their first house, an infectiously ebullient Ms. Quade-Perry steals the show with her big-gestured, dramatic performance.
The solid cast features Tommy Ratkiewicz as Harry, Jess Schmidt as Violet (who also could use a little more kick in the role), Don Faust as Uncle Billy, Bob Manasco as Sam Wainwright, Sandra Atkinson as Mother Bailey and George Swift as Pop Bailey.
The brassy, lively, full-bodied orchestra (led by Deb Swift) is excellent and does add a lot to the feeling of the story. The triumphant pairing of the full cast in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and a reprise of the title song sends you home full of holiday warmth and cheer.
"It's a Wonderful Life" continues tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., atProspect Park Auditorium, 1584 34th Ave., Moline.Tickets are 15 for adults, $10 for children, available at (309) 762-6610.
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