“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a different take on a classic tale

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Unsuccessful at the box office when first released, the Frank Capra classic film It’s a Wonderful Life has, by frequent showings on television, become a staple of the Christmas season. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison now presents the timeless tale in the form of an adapted-for-radio play. With the merits of the story still shining through, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play attempts to combine a performance in a theatre with a reproduction of a live broadcast in a radio studio.

"It's a Wonderful Life" at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison
Scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison

Theatergoers become the live audience in Studio A of WBFR radio in New York. As you enter, you see the engineer in the control booth, the Foley artist on a raised platform surrounded by various sound effects devices, the “Applause” sign on the wall, the piano off to one side. Actors enter, warming up for this week’s performance. The announcer tells us that a live nationwide broadcast will be performed before our eyes. The familiar story unfolds, interrupted by the obligatory commercials, upholding the worth of each individual life and ideals of friendship, sacrifice, and human decency until it arrives at its well-known conclusion.

Scene from "It's a Wonderful Life" at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison
Scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison

Director Doug West and most of the cast are Shakespeare Theatre veterans, and the audience responds to their regard for the actors as much as to the characters they inhabit in this production. Among the talented cast, John Ahlin as the villainous Mr. Potter, Andy Patterson’s angel Clarence Oddbody, and James Michael Reilly in a quartet of roles are standouts. Special mention goes to Warren Pace, a real-life sound technician, making his Shakespeare Theatre onstage debut as the unnamed Foley artist, receiving a well-deserved round of applause for his self-effacing efforts creating the multitude of aural details that bring the story to life for its nationwide listeners.

Scene from "It's a Wonderful Life" at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison
Scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison

A problem, though, is the neither-fish-not-fowl nature of the piece. It’s a clever idea to present the story in the form of a live radio play. However, the cast is on one hand coming up to the microphones to deliver their lines to the invisible radio audience, while on the other hand acting as though they were performing for a visible theatre audience complete with gestures and movements no radio audience would see. According to the program, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play was presented last season as a staged reading. Done that way, the dichotomy between appearing to perform on radio and actually performing in a theatre might not have been so obvious.

Scene from "It's a Wonderful Life" at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison
Scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ in Madison

Don’t get me wrong: this new production of the classic story hits all the emotional notes of its cinematic predecessor, and those seeing it will leave with a Yuletide glow. Its warm optimistic view of human nature is a gift given to us by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. For a different take on a familiar seasonal favorite, you will not go wrong by seeing It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.W. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through December 31st, 2017. For tickets and information, visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.