Ask anyone to name his/her favorite Christmas movie and very likely “It’s a Wonderful Life” will be at the top of the list. The holidays aren’t complete without the beloved 1946 Frank Capra movie about the idealistic but victimized George Bailey, who decides to end his life but is prevented by Clarence, the lovably bumbling angel. Now, for the second year in a row, Kansas City will be able to experience the tale on stage.
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre will be producing “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a radio play for a few weeks in December. Audiences will enjoy a “live 1940s radio broadcast,” with sound effects, props galore, lighting cues and quick character changes. The Met space will be configured into continental seating, making viewers the studio audience at a radio show. Unfolding before them will be the total active production of a radio show — the movements, the stage directions, the changes and the commercial interruptions complete with jingles.
Fourteen actors, including five children, standing in front of three microphones, will present the story. There will be piano accompaniment, with the music paralleling the original film score. A narrator will keep the audience on track. The play will be 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Heading the cast will be Jordan Fox as George. Jimmy Stewart is, of course, George in the film, and Fox is described by many as having a Jimmy Stewart-like aura. Indeed, he looks somewhat like Stewart — he’s tall and lean — and projects trustworthiness and honor of character. Fox says, while he doesn’t try to mimic Stewart, he does his best to deliver the “flavor” of Stewart’s speech and delivery. Originally from Springfield, he will be familiar to audiences from his many roles in local theater, including “The Kentucky Cycle,” “Ragtime,” “Photograph 51” and “Assassins.” Playing George is a special treat, “a truly joyful experience,” in his words.
Rebecca Ralston will play Mary, and Alan Tilson, Clarence. Brie Henderson, Bob Paisley, Brad Dawty, Jordan Haas and Brenna Bridge are also featured.
According to Karen Paisley, director, the production highlights of the show are the sound effects, the costuming and the lighting. Audiences will thrill to the innovative sounds of the improvised siren, of ice breaking and window shattering. The period costumes, which Paisley found at an estate sale years ago, will impress. Side lighting and focus lighting will define the action and personalities, maximizing clarity and simplicity. Clarence’s bell and a specific ornament will receive special attention. To enhance the seasonal element, holiday baked goods will be offered, at times from the stage itself.
In 2016, MET produced the show with little advance preparation or fanfare. Last year’s production wasn’t definite until October, and thus was mainly promoted by word of mouth. Even so, it was a hit.
This year the show will be more heavily marketed. Not that it needs an introduction; Paisley and Haas claim to have watched the movie annually for years, as will have most who come to see it. Fox recalls only one or two viewers who admitted never having seen it. Everyone departed smiling and in high spirits. Of special import, it was reported to the cast that Karolyn Grimes, who played little Zuzu Bailey in the movie, attended a performance.
Redemption, hope and community are the themes of “Wonderful Life.” Fox saw them as particularly meaningful last year, post-election, as they surely will be this year. Regular Met Ensemble attendee Thelda Kestenbaum appreciated the emphasis on the positive impact we can each make on others. “Pointing out to others their attributes is important and may even be lifesaving” is her takeaway.
As it turns out “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings” can lift us all.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” runs Dec. 7 – 17 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. For tickets and more information, www.metkc.org
Above: Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre presents “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” featuring (bottom row left to right): Charlie Weber, Salem Deel, Brenna Grace Bridge and (top row left to right): Jordan Fox, Cori Anne Weber and Jordan Haas, from Dec. 7 to 17. (photo by Bob Paisley)