“Wonderful Life” Succeeds With Simplicity and Charm

Annual holiday shows are a tradition in Kansas City, but only this year did I make it to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” now in its third season at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Final verdict: It was worth the wait. 

The MET production of Joe Landry’s adaptation of the classic 1947 Frank Capra film fills the company’s space at the old Warwick Theatre with genuine warmth and credible holiday cheer. This  show, clocking in at 90 minutes, is fun to watch. 

Landry takes a novel approach: What if the story, virtually identical to the film in most details, were to be staged as a radio play? The result is a show that seems simple on one level, but upon closer scrutiny is clearly a complex undertaking. Director Karen Paisley handles the demanding logistics and stages it with humor and grace without ever losing command of the pacing.

The actors read from scripts, just as they would in a post-World War II radio broadcast. Part of the fun is watching cast members provide physical sound effects, just as actors might have in the 1940s — hand-held shoes scuffed together as characters approach, doors opening and closing, an ear-splitting air horn operated by Chuck Pulliam, who pulls double duty as the radio show MC as well as the villainous Mr. Potter. Actress Cori Anne Weber is twice asked to impersonate the sound of a police siren with impressive results. 

Much of the infectious good cheer is established at the outset, as actors begin to arrive for the radio broadcast and greet each other with hugs and back slaps while making small talk before the show proper begins. 

Key cast members are veterans of the previous iterations of this show as well as other MET productions. Jordan Fox plays George Bailey, the aspiring architect who reluctantly agrees to run the  building-and-loan founded by his father and forced by circumstances to consider suicide. Fox handles the role created by Jimmy Stewart deftly, although I must admit that there were times when he channeled Stewart’s unmistakable vocal cadences.

The old pro Alan Tilson plays Clarence, the angel hoping to earn his wings if he can save George from himself, with humor and charm. Rebecca Ralstin impresses with unforced charisma as Mary Bailey, George’s wife. Pulliam enjoys Potter’s villainy and Bob Paisley has fun with a variety of roles, most notably the incompetent Uncle Billy. 

The big cast includes Brie Henderson, Cindy Siefers, Matthew Emerick, Ryan Fortney and Victoria Barbee, all of whom function seamlessly in the big ensemble. Also on hand are some precocious juvenile performers: Gabe Traub, Holly Lichtenauer, Brenna Grace and Charlie Weber. 

Music director Brian Mitchell Bates provides accompaniment and incidental music at the piano.

Director Paisley stages the action in wide-screen perspective, filling up the vast playing area with shrewdly composed groupings and stage pictures designed to satisfy each viewer’s perspective. I watched the show from the left seating section. 

What’s most amazing about this material is how effectively it touches our emotions despite our overwhelming familiarity with the story. Five credited screenwriters, including Capra, worked on the film but the story they gave us is a seemingly timeless allegory that bears repeated viewings. 

Ultimately, that’s what the MET production does best: It just tells the story. 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” runs through Dec. 16 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre,  3927 Main. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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