It’s a Wonderful Life at Stoneham Theatre

13Dec08

Holiday classic newly relevant for these times

What is left to say about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the story by Philip Van Doren that in 1947 Frank Capra made into a classic holiday film starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore?
It's a Wonderful Life
Now aired on numerous television networks throughout the holiday season, hardly anyone over a certain age doesn’t know the story of George Bailey, a bank clerk and family man who is about to commit suicide when a strange man appears and shows him what the world would have been like if he had never been born.

But even if you’ve seen the movie version over and over, there’s nothing like a live stage production to give you back the feeling of experiencing the story for the first time. And that’s true in spades of Stoneham Theatre’s current holiday production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

There are some cornball scenes – this is the 1940s after all – but they somehow make this depiction of “the good old days” all the more endearing. Much of the credit for the warm, cozy feel of the Stoneham production goes to the cast, all of whom seem entirely natural and comfortable in their characters.

This is especially true of Owen Doyle in the lead role. Perfectly cast as George Bailey, Doyle brings some of the same gangly, good-hearted goofiness to his stage character that Jimmy Stewart brought to the movie George. Whatever Stewart influences Doyle allows into his performance come across not so much as imitation but as homage to the actor who created the character of George Bailey.

On stage, the old-fashioned small-town romance and marriage between George and Mary (Jessica Webb) is sweetly sentimental and utterly normal, until the day Uncle Billy (Bill Taylor), while on the way to the bank on Christmas Eve “misplaces” $8,000 of the Bailey Building & Loan’s money.

Now at the mercy of the evil banker Mr. Potter (Alan Mayo), George loses his cool over the lost money. After taking it out on his family, he plans to take his own life, until the mysterious stranger Clarence Odbody (Bill Gardiner) shows up out of nowhere as George is about to jump off a bridge.

Clarence, it turns out, is George’s guardian angel. In response to George’s wish that he “had never been born,” Clarence shows George what the small town of Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

In a sense, the current economic crisis has made “It’s a Wonderful Life” newly relevant for today’s audiences. In the story, Bedford Falls residents fear that George Bailey’s Building & Loan may be insolvent and there is a subsequent run on the bank, leading to further doubts about the institution’s economic future and its depositors’ money. This aspect of the story may ring truer in 2008 than at any time since the movie debuted in 1947.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the perfect Christmas fare for these times, and Stoneham Theatre’s production may be as good as any holiday show they have ever done, and that’s saying something.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, by James W. Rodgers, based on the film by Frank Capra and the story by Philip Van Doren. Directed by Chris Jorie. Set Design, Jeremy Barnett. Costume Design, Joanna Murphy. Lighting Design, Chris Fournier. Sound Design, David Wilson. Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light. Assistant Stage manager Meghan Fisher. Starring: Owen Doyle, Bill Gardiner, Jakob Michaels, Lucas Lloyd, Dee Nelson, Ann Marie Shea, Hannah Wilson, Scott Giangrande, George Saulnier III, Bill Taylor, Jessica Webb, Allan Mayo, Linda Goetz, Kiera McNelis, Michael Barbo, Theresa Chiasson, Stephen LaMonica, Michael Sticca and Rebecca Lerman.

[This review originally appeared in the December 9, 2008 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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