The story of George Bailey and the town of Bedford Falls has been a part of December celebrations for decades. But you probably haven't seen it told like this. Directed by Stephen Nachamie, Harbor Lights Theater Company's new production of Joe Landry's It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, at Staten Island's Veterans Memorial Hall Playhouse, gives an exciting twist to a holiday favorite.
Landry's play takes place in a 1940s Staten Island radio station, WHLTC, where five voice actors and a Foley artist (sound-effects producer) enact George Bailey's story as a radio play performed in front of a live studio audience. Those who have seen the 1946 Frank Capra film will recognize the storyline these actors re-create: Kindhearted, generous George Bailey runs his father's building and loan, and he'll do anything he can to help others. When the town's greedy, mean-spirited Mr. Potter takes advantage of a bank error, George's future looks dire. In a fit of despair, George leaves his wife and family and considers suicide, but an angel shows him just how different the lives of those in the town of Bedford Falls would be if George had never existed.
Landry has added an enchanting dimension to the classic film, transporting the audience back to the 1940s and the days of radio. It's a play within a play, one in which we watch six theater actors play six radio actors who enact their roles in a radio version of It's a Wonderful Life, complete with commercial breaks and an applause sign that flashes when the audience should clap.
But despite being part of a "radio play," the performances here are meant to be seen, along with Tamara Jenkins' nostalgic costumes. David Sitler marvelously performs the roles of Mr. Potter and a handful of other characters, and Trent Armand Kendall earns well-deserved laughs as Clarence the angel. The lovely K.C. Leiber portrays George's wife, Mary, with delightful charm and innocence, and Rebecca Baxter brilliantly inhabits several roles, most endearingly George's youngest daughter, Zuzu. Nathan Ullrich, the Foley artist, is the silent star of the show. He never utters a word, but he supplies the radio show's sound effects, from doors closing to shoes clacking to winds howling. His role gives the play unique interest.
Special mention, however, must be given to Martin Landry, whose performance as George Bailey is nothing short of extraordinary. Landry channels just enough of film-role originator Jimmy Stewart to give his character a sense of the familiar, but he more than makes the role his own. And he does so with such a natural sense of dialogue and delivery that you forget you're watching a voice actor standing in front of a microphone. It would be easy to recommend this show for Landry alone.
It's all the elements of this production, though, that make Harbor Lights' It's a Wonderful Life a funny, heartwarming joy. Staten Islanders and anyone else who wants to get in on the exciting theater world emerging in the outer boroughs would do well to put this show on their short list of must-sees for the holiday season.