Despite my love of Christmas movies, I had never viewed the iconic Jimmy Stewart film IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE until recently. While the film is considered by many to be the best Holiday film of all time, I was largely unimpressed. I found the film to be preachy, cheesy, clichéd and long.
Thankfully, my reaction to It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play was entirely different. The stage version, presented for the 2nd year in a row by The Penfold Theatre Company, is in many ways more enjoyable than the original film. This show is as warm and sweet as a cup of hot coco on Christmas Eve.
The stage adaptation, written by Joe Landry, heavily borrows from the film’s screenplay in which an angel is sent to earth on Christmas Eve to help struggling everyman, George Bailey. All of the best moments and dialogue are intact, though the script cuts the film’s running time by about 40 minutes. Of course, the biggest change here is the adaptation from a sprawling motion picture to an intimate radio play in which five actors portray the entire population of Bedford Falls. The piece is truly actor-driven, and Director Nathan Jerkins and his creative team certainly keep the focus on the talented ensemble. The simplistic sets and costumes (by George Marsolek and Glenda Barnes respectively), do not pull focus, allowing the audience to be fully enraptured by the cast and the dialogue. The cast also supplies all of the sound effects in the show and performs a few radio commercials as well, brilliantly and often humorously adding to the radio play conceit.
As George Bailey, Ryan Crowder is extraordinary. He looks and feels like a 1940s film star, and his George is a charming, engaging hero you want to root for. I also appreciate that while Crowder utilizes that 1940s film diction and je ne sais quas, he does so without parodying or caricaturing Jimmy Stewart’s iconic voice. He also has plenty of chemistry with Jenni Finley, who plays Mary Bailey with an earnestness that is completely infectious. But it is the ensemble of Chris Gibson, David Jarrott, and Claire Ludwig that you’ll remember most. All three portray multiple roles, and seeing them switch effortlessly from character to character is absolutely enchanting and magical. David Jarrott’s deep, radio-ready baritone voice and Chris Gibson’s rubbery facial expressions—especially when playing the guardian angel, Clarence—are downright delightful.
While I’m not a huge fan of the film version, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a winner and a Christmas gift to Austin theater. You’d have to be a Grinch or a Scrooge not to enjoy this fantastic, heartwarming, and cheerful production.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY, presented by The Penfold Theatre Company, plays at Rice’s Crossing Store (3300 Palm Valley Blvd, Round Rock, TX 78665) now thru December 23rd. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm. Run time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission. Tickets are $20 general admission and $18 for students/seniors. For tickets and more information, visit www.penfoldtheatre.org.