The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life: Radio Play (Cory Weaver)
For many of us, the winter holiday season isn’t complete without an annual viewing of Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. After so many decades of rewatches, though, even the biggest fans of the classic can end up needing an occasional break. Being in a period of IAWL fatigue myself, I was concerned that It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play might fuel that feeling of oversaturation. But this play, currently onstage at Music Theater Heritage, delivers the same beloved story we all know so well, but in a refreshingly distinctive package.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play tells the same story as Capra’s film, following George Bailey (Travis Turner) from childhood all the way through a disastrous day at the Bailey Building & Loan that leaves him wishing he’d never been born—and seeing that wish granted by his guardian angel Clarence (Shane St. James).
Directed by Emily Shackelford, the story is told in the form of a 1940s-era live radio play. All the characters are played by a small group of actors, with most doubling up on roles. In addition to Turner and St. James, the ensemble is rounded out by MaryAnn Traxler as Mary Bailey, Jamie Lin Pratt as Violet Bick and others, Genesis Olivia Weekes as an impossibly adorable Zuzu Bailey, and T. Eric Morris as the radio host and an impressive melange of various characters. Rather than interact with each other, the dialogue is delivered into microphones, facing straight out—that is, until George Bailey makes his wish and Clarence gives him a glimpse of what could have been. As George’s life begins to break apart, so do the parameters of the play’s reality. The effect is gripping.
A special joy of these sorts of live radio plays is getting to watch the sound effects performed by a foley artist live onstage. Tucked in the front corner of the stage, Tod Barnard might not be visible to all audience members, especially as he often works in the lower levels of his extensive setup, but for those with a view, he is a delight to watch work.
In addition to the onstage foley work, live music also adds a cheerful energy. Music director Ty Tuttle scores the show on piano throughout, blending seamlessly with Jon Robertson’s sound design to fill out a rich atmosphere. Live musical interludes (in which Tuttle is joined by Barnard on drums) and a streamlined runtime keep the momentum driving forward, creating a splendid piece of holiday entertainment.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play” runs through December 23 at Music Theater Heritage at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com.