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Theater review: This ‘Wonderful Life’ doesn’t get its wings

Theater review: This ‘Wonderful Life’ doesn’t get its wings

Being in on the creation of a radio show has pleasures, but they are awfully limited
Theater review: This ‘Wonderful Life’ doesn’t get its wings
Carl Howell and Elizabeth Nestlerode in “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live from the WVL Radio Theater.”
Photographer: richard lovrich

Four terrific actors, accompanied by two onstage musicians, are doing their darnedest to make this show at Cap Rep work.

They can’t.

The conceit of this play is so leaden that after the first 15 minutes one can only admire the performers’ ability to create the numerous characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which most of us remember from the 1946 Frank Capra movie.

What is the premise? A quartet of people associated with a small radio station in upstate New York in 1948 are the only ones on hand to air the presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” because a snowstorm has prevented the real performers from arriving in time. Two are actors — H. Christopher Mays (Wynn Harmon) and Kitty Dayle (Laurie Wells); another, Evelyn Reed (Elizabeth Nestlerode), is the daughter of the station manager; the fourth is the sound effects guy, Lee Wright (Carl Howell).

And we are supposed to be the live radio audience before whom the script is acted out. Occasionally an APPLAUSE sign goes off stage left to prompt us to put our hands together.

Being in on the creation of a radio show has pleasures, but they are awfully limited: they didn’t sustain our attention for nearly two hours.

And watching these four run around initially trying to master the sound effects in a timely fashion is briefly entertaining. Whew! He made the sound of a door shutting by shutting a small door! Oh, she got to the wind machine by the skin of her teeth! 

And then, once they’ve become familiar with how to work the gizmos---in unbelievably short order, I might add — the basic suspense is gone. At the top of Act II, Evelyn and Kitty bring out four hot toddies, and I was hoping that things would go awry as the four of them got sloshed, but no such luck. The radio show went on.

And on and on.

The scenic designer, David McQuillen Robertson, has come up with a colorful radio station set, replete with microphones, a Christmas tree, a station sign, and a Foley table (named after Jack Foley, sound effects inventor).

Evan Prizant’s handsome costumes take us back to yesteryear. The lighting by Rob Denton helps one scene dissolve smoothly into the next.

Josh D. Smith, keyboard, and Harry Lumb, bass, provide background music as the story unfolds and at one point coax a mild seasonal sing-along from us, the studio audience. 

Director Margaret E. Hall and the four splendid actors clearly had fun figuring out how to distinguish vocally each character. There’s no question that you can close your eyes and hear, for example, Howell’s desperate George Bailey, or Mays’s malevolent Mr. Potter, or Reed’s Mary Bailey, or Dayle’s Vi — to say nothing of the other characters each plays. And the choice to have them play so broadly — to mug, to gesture grandly, for acting is done with the whole body even if a radio audience at home can’t see the actors — makes us appreciate the warm-hearted story as much as we can in such a contrived presentation.

But Jiminy Crickets — to borrow a phrase from Wright — couldn’t we just have “It’s a Wonderful Life” straight?

‘It’s a Wonderful Life: Live from the WVL Radio Theatre’

WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN:   through Dec. 22
HOW MUCH:  $67.50-$27
MORE INFO:  518.346.6204, or capitalrep.org

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