Review: It’s A Wonderful Life

by Lynn on December 17, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written for the stage by Philip Grecian
Based on the Frank Capra film
Directed by Albert Schultz
Set and costumes by Lorenzo Savoini
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound and foley design by John Gzowski
Cast: Derek Boyes
Sascha Cole
Oliver Dennis
Christef Desir
Raquel Duffy
Michelle Fisk
Thea Lapham
Richie Lawrence
Diego Matamoros
Michelle Monteith
Ellen Moon
Daniel Mousseau
Gregory Prest
James Smith
Marcel Stewart
William Webster

An ambitious endeavor to present It’s a Wonderful Life as a 1940s radio play that is very moving in parts but gets bogged down in all the distracting sound effects and stage business.

The Story. George Bailey lives in a small American town and he has dreams of travelling around the world; then going to college; then working at something he loves.
Of course, life being what it is it doesn’t work out that way.

George saves money for college but then his father has a heart attack and George gives up his dream to take over the running of the family business– The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Company. George gives his college money to his brother so he can go to college.

George marries his childhood sweet heart, Mary. They plan a honeymoon. But then there is a financial crisis and his customers need money, so there goes the money for his honeymoon.

George tries to do right by the people in the town who come to him for financial help, but is often thwarted by his chief competition who represents the bank. There is a one last test of George’s faith and he gets fed up with the struggle and wants to do something drastic.

Enter, Clarence the Angel in Training who does not have his wings and must do something profound to earn them. George is the focus for Clarence to earn his wings.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a play about struggle, faith, confidence and knowing the value of your life. It’s a dandy story for this time of year.

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini has designed a radio studio with several microphones about the space, snow on the windows and all manner of paraphernalia for creating the sound effects of this Christmas Eve broadcast. Actors in smart 1940s costumes mill about the set, preparing for the broadcast and rehearsing the sound effects of a car crash.

I’ve seen such efforts over the years—plays presented as vintage radio broadcasts but watched by an audience in a theatre. Usually they have what’s known as a Foley artist who does all the sound effects off to one side of the stage while the acting is centre stage. In these instances the actors hold their scripts and read them directly into the microphone in front of them. The Foley artist usually is settled off to one side surrounded by all the gongs, cymbals and other paraphernalia that will be needed to produce the appropriate sound effects. In this case it’s the whole cast who create all the sounds.

Stage right is a wood box structure on a table. A soundman opens and shuts the door of the wood box whenever a character enters or exits a room. The soundman also walks nosily in place on a board on the floor—resulting in a walking sound, also when a character enters or exits a scene. Some cast members make bird sounds thus re-creating the sounds at night or in the daylight.

There is a car crash in the telling of the story so one actor makes a screeching sound into one of the many microphones, then another actor throws boxes and tins across the floor to create that sound of a car crunching.

It’s fascinating seeing all the activity of the busy stage business, and how the sound effect is created. The big question regarding all this activity and noise-making is: “Is it distracting?”

I heard director Albert Schultz recently on radio saying how great it is for the audience to fill in the blanks and imagine that world of the story from the acting and the sound effects and the intricate ways that sound is being made.

I can appreciate that. But yes, I find it distracting if action is going on centre stage and a sound effect is done somewhere stage right and almost out of sight. You want to watch the actual reading/acting, but all these strange noises which should enhance the scene, instead distract us from it as our focus is pulled away. I also find that director Albert Schultz shifts from the theatrical of a real theatre to the dramatic of a radio show.
Sometimes it seems confusing.

At one point George Bailey is given a (imaginary) suitcase for his trip. He mimes looking inside to see how roomy it is. I hear a strange snapping sound upstage and to the right almost behind the large wood box that is used for the door slamming.

It’s not immediately clear what that snapping sound is because there is no context—George is not given an actual suit case to lay on the floor and snap the mechanisms open, with the attendant snapping sound provided.

Wouldn’t that have been more efficient in clarifying to the scene—to have a real suitcase that can be laid on the floor with the sound of the actual snaps clicked open to provide its own sound? I do? Often there is so much loud activity on stage and to many microphoned sound effects it is hard to hear the dialogue the actors are speaking into their microphones.

Another note of confusion is at the end. After all is happily concluded—this is not a spoiler alert, the film is shown every year and everybody loves it so I’m not telling your anything you don’t know—anyway, after all is happily concluded, a delicate funnel of snow falls from the ceiling. Now what is that? Is it falling in the radio station? Is it falling in George and Mary’s real lives?

It’s a Wonderful Life is a very poignant story as we know from the film. Realizing that poignancy in the ‘radio play’ is tricky. For all my concerns, the most effective scene is when George gets his life back and the will to live and he rushes to celebrate this with his family.

Gregory Prest plays George with a sweet wide-eyed determination. But when he’s running, gasping for breath, desperate to be with Mary and his children, calling her name, there are no sound effects or other distractions, only George’s desperation to reach his family. I found that terribly moving and probably more moving than other scenes because it was the most theatrical in which the audience could think and imagine on its own what is going through George’s mind.

I also think Raquel Duffy as Mary Bailey is touching in her moments of concern for George.

Comment. It almost seems churlish to criticize the effort to take such a beloved story based on a beloved film, and try and shake things up by presenting it as a radio play.

Soulpepper Theatre Company continues to try and find new ways to tell old stories. I appreciate that. I love how they even wrote in the broadcast commercials one might hear over the radio—plugs for other Soulpepper shows in this instance.

But presenting It’s a Wonderful Life as a radio play in a theatre sends confusing mixed messages.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Opened: Dec. 16, 2016
Closes: Dec. 31, 2016
Cast: 16, 10 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours.

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