Tuesday, December 6, 2016

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Along with A Christmas Carol, screenings and adaptations of the Frank Capra film It's A Wonderful Life flood the media each yuletide season.  NoHo's Theatre Unleashed, like many a Los Angeles theatrical group, proved unwilling to simply mount a classic.  They re-imagined it, in part because company member Jim Martyka wrote a fresh version--one with more than a few delightful surprises.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play proves itself a play-within-a play.  Like many an adaptation, Martyka's script uses the style of a radio play to get around the flashbacks and vast character changes required by the story.  But what his version does--and others do not (at least the ones I've seen)--is give a parallel story to the radio performers themselves.

We find ourselves in the studio of KAWL, a struggling radio station in 1940s Los Angeles with the cast and crew of tonight's live performance straggle in.  Honey (Caroline Sharp), Harriet (Molly Moran) and Holly (Ariana Weiss) set things up and gossip among themselves.  In the show they'll serve as a chorus singing Christmas carols for transition and atmosphere.  Soon the actors start to enter.  Victor Saul (Graydon Schlichter) almost trips into the studio, obviously drunk and as a result a little loose-lipped about his past with almost has-been Claudia LaBelle (Jennifer Ashe), while not-very-bright starlet Jennifer DaVinci (Sammi Lappin) waltes in chattering about her recent name change to seem smarter while sometimes-leading-man Clifton Logan (Andy Justus)  tries to woo her--as he evidently does with any attractive woman in reach.  Steven Pennington (Steve Peterson) can be heard doing his vocal exercises.  Newcommer Mitchell Thompson (Lee Pollero) cannot get over his good luck to be working here.  Each seems a real person, vivid enough to come across in not-very-many minutes--and each will reveal depths before curtain.

Pretty soon things start to go seriously wrong.  They don't have a Clarence!  But someone (Carey Matthews) who seems, possibly homeless (although pretty clean to be such), has wandered into the studio and hidden.  Station Manager Michael Anderson (Spencer Cantrell) simply recruits him to play Clarence--and fortunately he turns out to have a nice voice as well as a real ability to act!  After that crisis, the foley girl/assistant Judy Anderson (Margaret Glacuum) demonstrates why she only has this job because she's the boss's cousin.  She never delivered the telegrams from the male and female leads they cannot make the show!  So Michael and his girlfriend/co-manager Melanie Peters (Courtney Sara Bell) have to play the leads without warning!

And so we're off!  As a playwright myself, the trick of getting the audience invested in the play's production made we want to applaud!  Eventually of course I did!  Because apart from the--very clever--writing, everything about this production struck the right notes.  The comedy veers between madcap to achingly human.  The stories echo back and forth on many levels, heightening the power of both the radio play and the radio players.  In fact, this may well be my favorite version of IAWL ever!  So writer, cast and director Jenn Scuderi Crafts all deserve lots of applause from plenty of audiences (which I hope they will get).

Because after all who doesn't know the story of the movie?  Haven't we all seen it time and again?  Plus many variations on the same theme?  Yet this production gives us more, pretty much flawlessly integrated and full of interesting characters who all live through yet another story--which changes them, in a way that feels so very very right for Christmas, or what Christmas is supposed to be.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play plays Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through December 18, 2016 at The Belfry Stage, upstairs from the Crown, 11031 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood CA 91602.

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