You may think you know Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life by heart. But with its delightful production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Studio Tenn Theatre delivers a decidedly fresh take on this beloved holiday classic
Adapted by Joe Landry, this heart-warming show reimagines the familiar tale of George Bailey as a live 1940s radio broadcast, with just five actors bringing all of the iconic characters to life.
It’s a clever twist to be sure, and Artistic Director Patrick Cassidy (in his long-awaited directorial debut for Studio Tenn) takes it a step further by setting the action right here in Franklin, at our own WAKM radio station. It’s a smart move that lends itself to plenty of local references, along with old-timey commercials and jingles built around sponsors such as Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant and Harpeth True Value. Even the playbill supports the theatrical device, presenting the traditional cast list and director notes as a newspaper featuring the Williamson Herald masthead.
Cassidy wisely leans into the story’s nostalgia, honoring our collective memories of the film while celebrating the spirit of live performance. Of course, he also has assembled a terrific ensemble, marked by a number of notable company debuts. Caleb Shore is excellent as Jake Laurentis, the radio actor playing George Bailey. And while Shore rightly stops short of outright impersonation, he certainly embodies all the charm — and often the cadence — of a young Jimmy Stewart. Mariah Parris also impresses as Sally Applewhite, who brings great warmth and grace to the role of Mary Hatch.
The two receive outstanding support from the always-reliable Matthew Carlton, who as WAKM announcer Freddy Filmore, takes on a number of pivotal parts. But it’s the scenes in which he must essentially debate himself — quickly switching gears between that “scurvy little spider” Mr. Potter and the childlike Uncle Billy — that are especially polished. Gerold Oliver is just as strong as Harry “Stacks” Heywood, grabbing big laughs as he takes on some of the more colorful characters who call Bedford Falls home. Yet he also serves up a genuine sense of wonder as George’s earnest guardian angel, Clarence.
But it’s Galen Crawley who nearly steals the show as Lana Sherwood, who gives voice to everyone from the sassy Violet Bick (“This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.”) to George’s little daughter, Zuzu. From squalling newborns to an embittered Ma Bailey, she wins us over each time she steps up to the microphone. Even more impressive, Crawley manages to connect us with the play’s tricky show-within-a-show format. And despite not knowing anything about her fictional radio actor’s backstory, I have a feeling that we’d all enjoy an evening out with the lively Ms. Sherwood.
Still, each actor finds a moment to shine, and it’s quite entertaining to watch everyone jump in to create the sound effects for the radio production — from slamming doors to the whistling wind. Some productions feature a single Foley artist, but I rather like this version, which enlists the entire ensemble in the magic. Footsteps fade out as a character exits a scene, clanking bottles welcome us to the local bar, and a bristly brush moves across the back of a baking pan to signal the arrival of a train.
Andrew Cohen’s gorgeous set is beautifully detailed — from the vintage microphones and applause signs to the glistening snow falling outside the station’s window. Lauren Terry’s costumes also capture the era nicely, while Darren E. Levin’s lighting adds to the dreamy effect. Danny Northup’s sound also is particularly effective — so important in this salute to the Golden Age of Radio. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mitchell Beard, whose musical accompaniment deepens the emotion of each scene.
As Cassidy reminds us in his program notes, you could hardly find a better show — or a better time — to contemplate the power of love, sacrifice and just how connected we all really are. (It seemed incredibly ironic to this writer to watch this lovely story about a community coming together to help one of its own, even as some audience members couldn’t be bothered to wear a mask during the performance.) After all we’ve endured over the last 20 months or so, it really is wonderful to be back in the theater.
It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues through Dec. 24. Visit studiotenn.com for complete details.