Local playwrights add some twists to Cabrillo’s take on holiday classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
What’s so ambitious about the Cabrillo College Theater Arts Department’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life is the risks it takes while re-imaging a beloved holiday classic. In line with the Depression-era film, the musical version incorporates the housing collapse and financial crisis, among other modern-day issues. The major twist is that each character has a unique musical identity, with ballads ranging in genre from gospel to reggae to rock.
In Frank Capra’s film of the same name, there is one angel with a very limited role. In contrast, Cabrillo’s musical boasts an entire gospel choir of angels, led by renowned local singer Tammi Brown. George Bailey (David Jackson)’s guardian angel Clarence (Jarrod Washington) is a Rastafarian whose role was developed through an intended interplay between two musical genres tied to religion. The antagonistic evil banker naturally owns the ominous rock-opera style played out in minor chords. George and Mary, the two protagonists, sing more traditional show tunes.
Despite this stylistic variety, the score manages to flow due to recognizable patterns in composer Chris Perri’s writing style. Perri (aka heartthrob Johnny Perri of local ’80s band Eddie & The Tide) points out that “so many musicals stick to one style of music, show tunes or big Broadway ballads, and that can get dry after a while. It’s fun to change it up.”
The musical stays true to the film’s original storyline, following protagonist Bailey, a good man essential to a small town’s well-being, who is framed by the banker in a public scandal ripe with theft, betrayal and infidelity. Despondent, Bailey resolves to take his own life, but his clever guardian angel intervenes. In the end, Bailey learns that friends, family and community—not fame and fortune—are the true measures of wealth and happiness.
But the musical adventurousness had an effect on the play’s overall tone. “We went in a lighter direction than the original film with the songs,” Perri said. “There’s still those heavy moments where George Bailey thinks about suicide and wishes he’d never been born, but the parts in between are more fun.”
Perri conceptualized the music after partner Marcus Kaufman wrote the lyrics. Kaufman and Perri wrote the score back in 2009—the play then sat dormant for five years before being picked up by director Kathryn Adkins.
“The original writing process was very fast,” Perri said. He had to dig deep beyond his rock ’n’ roll roots, to early childhood memories of listening to his parents’ vinyl collection, which included several musicals: “This was the first time I’d ever done something like this—I’d completely forgotten about listening to musicals as a kid, but it all came back. The influence of other plays like My Fair Lady made the writing process very easy and natural.”
Musical Director Don Adkins then orchestrated the score. Adkins found the variety of musical genres made orchestrating a lot easier: “Because the styles are different, I didn’t have to worry about differentiating songs so that they don’t all sound the same, which is a challenge inherent to most musicals.” Adkins said that the variety “pumps a lot of energy into the story, and changes it up enough that the audience will be surprised, but not so much that they’ll be distracted by it.” According to Adkins, if there’s one thing that fans of the original should know, it’s that the opening scene includes a gospel choir of angels.
“This isn’t your traditional musical,” he says.
The modernization of this classic film is a tribute to its timeless message. Fans of Capra’s screenplay will recognize iconic scenes from the film, and according to Perri, the story is “still about how life shouldn’t be a search for fame and fortune, but about finding happiness in family and community and helping those around you.”
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ runs Nov. 7-21 at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets: $20 general, $18 students, $15 Cabrillo SAC card holders, cabrillovapa.com.
PLEASE, JAH, LET ME LIVE AGAIN Jarrod Washington plays a Rastafarian guardian angel and David Jackson is George Bailey in Cabrillo’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ PHOTO: JANA MARCUS