SSC’s well-acted ‘Wonderful Life’ a bittersweet finale
It’s been a turbulent year for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, since UC Santa Cruz officially pulled the plug on the company this summer, after 32 years of dynamic local theater. For the grand finale of its 2013 season—and possibly forever, at least in its present incarnation—SSC joins with the UCSC Theater Department for its annual holiday co-production. This year, they present “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Joe Landry’s popular 1997 play in which the beloved Frank Capra Christmas movie is reimagined as a radio drama being broadcast live, ca. 1946.
Six hard-working actors onstage play all the parts, reading from scripts into stand-up microphones. They are joined by a trio of chorus girls who sing commercial jingles during the on-air breaks, and also provide all the hands-on sound effects (breaking glass, clinking bottles, thrown punches, slammed doors, footsteps) during the course of the drama. An accomplished four-man band is also onstage, punctuating the action with smoky jazz, vintage pop standards, and holiday tunes.
Director Nancy Carlin’s production looks great. Kate Edmunds’ fabulous Art Deco set design looks out over a big city skyline on a starry night. Light-up “Applause” signs hanging over the audience emphasize the radio studio idea. B. Modern dresses the cast in vintage ’40s chic and the chorus girls in modified bellhop uniforms and Santa hats. It’s a long way from this glitzy setting to Bedford Falls, where the drama of It’s A Wonderful Life takes place, but big kudos are due to the actors playing the actors performing the story in this studio setting for recreating the small-town ambience with heart and ingenuity.
Likable Lucas Brandt is a stalwart George Bailey, who discovers on Christmas Eve what a sorry place the world would have been without him. Rachel Levy is a warm presence throughout as his childhood sweetheart and wife, Mary. Among the other actors playing multiple roles, Ted Barton stands out as the silky-voiced radio announcer, and the town villain, Potter. Gary Alan Wright is wonderful as Clarence, George’s guardian angel, and his lovable, but at times befuddled Uncle Billy. Ian Dick as affable Harry, George’s kid brother, and Emily Schneiderman (as wild girl, Violet, and the Bailey boys’ mother) are both impressive; they’re also very funny (along with Wright) filling in for the Bailey’s small children.
It’s fun to watch these actors shift between character voices in a heartbeat—sometimes having conversations with themselves—and low-tech effects like a tin can to simulate a telephone voice are delightful. Yet, some stretches of the production in the first half feel a bit inert. What’s missing is the magic, the sheer joie de vivre that used to distinguish SSC holiday shows, once upon a time.
The property is an odd choice, given SSC’s proud tradition of robust holiday pantomimes, fairy tales (“Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty”), and beloved children’s book adaptations (“The Wind in the Willows”). Children may be completely mystified by this show. Even if they have a general idea of what radio is, a live radio play will be a foreign concept to them. Indeed their grandparents are likely to be of the Boomer generation that missed radio and grew up on television, so who exactly is the nostalgia in this show aimed at?
Also, the best holiday shows for kids are jam-packed with magic and imagination, which cannot be said of Landry’s play. Sure, it has a heartwarming story, an angel and divine intervention, but it often plays onstage as a talky drama for grown-ups. Children who are eager to embrace magical fairy godmothers, drag-queen step-mothers, and grown men as frogs, toads, badgers, and ugly ducklings may not get it when, for instance, grown-ups onstage suddenly lapse into children’s voices. The radio broadcast concept allows the actors to do some nimble, subtle vocal acrobatics, but it only adds another layer of distance from the story for kids.
With the play’s single set (as handsome as it is), and no costume changes, this production has the feel of a cost-cutting measure. I don’t know the story behind the selection of this play, but if this is the last hurrah for SSC, it’s a shame it couldn’t go out with more of a bang instead of a good-humored chuckle.
‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ runs through Dec. 8 at the UCSC Mainstage, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. For tickets, call 459-2159, or visit shakespearesantacruz.org.