THEATER REVIEW: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Through Sun 12/15

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life is a family viewing tradition for many families.

The sappy, sentimental fantasy was produced and directed by Frank Capra. It was based on “The Greatest Gift,” a Phillip Van Doren Stern short story. The film, which starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and Henry Travers as Clarence, has become one of the most beloved in American cinema. Interestingly, was a financial flop at the movie box office. Only years later did it become required Christmas TV watching.

The tale centers on George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence. The bumbling angel, who has been angling to get his wings for a hundred years, succeeds when he shows George all the lives he has touched, and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be if he had never been born. It is almost impossible to watch the film and not ask yourself, “What a difference have I made in my lifetime?” It’s probably why so many people find the story endearing.

A stage version, adapted from the film, is now being performed by Theatre in the Circle. The University Circle theater bills itself as the only professional theater in the country housed in a senior retirement facility. Though the producer and director are residents, the performers are not residents, but professional and amateur actors from the CLE community.

The script was written by TITC’s Bill Corcoran and Dudley Saunders. It was originally performed in 1989 at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Indiana, one of the oldest and largest operating professional dinner theatres in the United States, where Corcoran was the music director. The script was revived once and then went into hiatus.

Corcoran and his husband Mark are the duo in charge of Theatre in the Circle. They decided that it was time for the script to come out of hibernation and are now staging it.

Well, reviving and revising it. The original cast had 20 characters. The new version has nine, with many characters playing multiple roles. The producers also needed to adapt the orchestrations to fit the acoustic and space requirements of the Judson Manor’s ballroom, where the show is being performed. They also had to adjust to the postage stamp proscenium/thrust stage, with the audience up close and personal, and operating on a shoestring budget which limited the ambiance of the costumes, sets and lighting. There was little they could do about the hokey story line which is actually what makes the schmaltzy tale so enduring to many.

In attending a Theatre in the Circle production, it must be realized that, even though there are some professional actors on stage, the general production values are much like many community theaters — lots of very good intentions and enthusiasm, with often moderate success. And that’s not all bad. There is a nice folksy feel in the company’s productions that fits the setting and the intentions of the producers. This is not intended to be competition for the Key Bank Broadway Series or Dobama or Cleveland Play House.

Michael Snider has the right touch as the do-gooder, put-upon George Bailey. He has a solid singing voice and makes us believe that George is a down-home real nice guy who has only the best intentions for the people of Bedford Falls. His rendition of “Wonderful Life” makes for a nice moral conclusion to the show.

Clarence is supposed to be the comic escape for the story. Though he overdoes it sometimes, Robert Kowalewski has the charm, voice and flexible face to make the role audience-pleasing.

Pert Natalie Green uses her well-developed vocal abilities for “Bein’ Bad” and David Munnell (a Gomer Pile look-, sound- and act-alike) does a good turn as Uncle Billy. Stephen Morse is nasty enough as Mr. Porter, the town bad guy that he got “boos” in the curtain call, but could have been even more Simon Lagree-nastier to help showcase George’s goodness.

The rest of the cast — Mason Stewart, Molly McGinnis, Erin Burke ad Braelin Andrzejewski — all put out full effort. The pleasant music, which includes two tangos and a couple of ballads, is not memorable, but helps develop the tale. Musical director Evie Morris and her band do an excellent job of underscoring rather than overpowering the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: If you are a fan of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, you will like Theatre in the Circle’s stage version. Go knowing that it’s the same overly sentimental and hokey tale set to music. It’s a nice break from the usual holiday shows that are repeated over and over at some local theatres.

The show ran for one weekend only 12/12-12/15.

theatreinthecircle

[Written by Roy Berko, member, Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association]

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