— Kirsten Robek and Bob Frazer in It’s a Wonderful Life. Photo by David Cooper.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
This is Jerry's review of the original 2007 Arts Club production.
Once more the Arts Club goes poaching the movies for Christmas and once more they bag a winner. While their ace version of the live Disney cartoon musical Beauty and the Beast plays the Stanley for the third December in a row, last year’s adaptation of A Christmas Story at Granville Island was apparently so successful that they commissioned its adaptor, Phillip Grecian, to write a stage version of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
I thought A Christmas Story was lame. It’s a Wonderful Life is anything but. It’s a wonderful show, a curiously impressive Christmas karaoke.
Dean Paul Gibson directs a beautiful production with a strong corps of 16 actors playing multiple roles in front of a large screen on which Jamie Nesbitt deftly manipulates scenes from the black and white movie. So while Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey staggers through a snowstorm to the railway bridge where he threatens to fling himself to his death, we watch an identical railway bridge drop down from the flies as an identically costumed Todd Talbot staggers through stage snow in identical despair.
Talbot is terrific as the earnest, honest, passionate populist hero. He plays George with emphatic energy, nicely matched by Jennifer Lines as his spunky wife Mary, especially in their sweet and lovely courtship scenes, and by Kevin McNulty, whose arch-evil banker Henry Potter combines The Grinch and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.
George’s family and the town of Bedford Falls are vividly peopled by character actors Peter Anderson, Kyle Jesperson, Erla Faye Forsyth, Brian Linds, Sasa Brown, Beatrice Zeilinger, and Brian Linds, along with five really good kid performers.
George’s guardian angel Clarence, played by the always loveable Bernard Cuffling, has a more prominent role here than in the movie. The opening night audience adored him but his dialogues with heaven grew a little too cutesy for me. And George himself has a scene that strikes a weirdly false note when he suddenly goes psycho with his family as if he has stopped taking his meds.
But these are minor issues in a nearly flawless evening. Gibson fluidly choreographs dozens of quick scene changes with Ted Roberts’ evocative oak set pieces rolling on and off the stage. Rebekka Sorenson’s period costumes are glorious and Neil Weisensel’s music has just the right quasi-cinematic quality.
The careful re-creation of the film makes clear just what a wonderful story it tells. What shines through here is not just Capra’s naïve faith in the power of goodness but the story of how affordable housing for lower-income people has the power to transform a community. That’s a Christmas tale we can’t afford not to hear.