James Clow, Catherine Brunell,  and company  in A Wonderful Life
(© Gerry Goodstein)
James Clow, Catherine Brunell, and company
in A Wonderful Life
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Like its iconic American everyman hero George Bailey, A Wonderful Life, the musical adaptation of Frank Capra's Christmas perennial It's a Wonderful Life now on view at the Paper Mill Playhouse, is highly respectable. The only catch is that whereas respectability is more than welcome in life, musicals don't trade heavily on the sometime spare commodity. No, sir; they thrive on inspiration.

However, inspiration is not A Wonderful Life's strong point. The show has music by the late Joe Raposo, beloved nowadays for his Sesame Street winners, "Being Green" and "Sing," and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, who is also providing a musical book for the first time. Harnick is generally faithful to the film, which is wise since if the outrageously popular 1946 comedy-drama was significantly changed, partisans might rise up with frightening consequences.

As a result, George Bailey (James Clow) still contemplates suicide when a downturn in his savings-and-loan establishment depresses him temporarily. (Okay, George's choice of method differs here from the screenplay.) Angel-wanting-wings Clarence (the twinkly-eyed Jeff Brooks) still graphically demonstrates what Bedford Falls would have been had George Bailey never lived. Mary Bailey (Catherine Brunell) is still George's model wife, and Ma Bailey (Jan Pessano), Uncle Billy (J. B. Adams), and Violet Bick (Emilee Dupre) are still around for support.

The show's high points are "Wings" -- sung, needless to say, by Clarence -- and "In the State," a Charleston about all the nation's towns called Charleston. The low point -- and it's pretty low -- is "Precious Little," a second-act caterwaul for the besieged George that does precious little to endear him to ticket-buyers. In between are the title song and a couple others that are pleasant while they pass, but don't linger beyond the final note. (Incidentally, some of the music has apparently been provided by Harnick as supplements to Raposo's work.)

A built-in obstacle for the show is the indelible Jimmy Stewart characterization of George Bailey. While Clow gets a heap of credit for submitting himself to the odious comparison, he lacks the golly-gee charisma that was Stewart's blockbuster appeal. The tall and imposing Clow delivers the musical-comedy basics, but it stops there. Instead, the performing standouts are Brooks, Nick Wyman as the villianous Henry Potter, a man 19th-century audiences would have gleefully hissed, and Sean Martin Hingston as George's lubricious college chum, Sam. The other players -- most notably Brunell -- act, sing, and dance smoothly under James Brennan's respectable direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's respectable choreography.

The most commendable elements, though, are Charlie Smith's set, which features Edward Hopper-ish hangings representing sleepy Bedford Falls, and a giggle-getting portrait of Henry Potter dressed as Napoleon. Gail Baldoni's costumes aren't bad, either. But in the end, none of the secondary elements can help A Wonderful Life to rise above the not-wonderful-enough level.