Saturday, July 26, 2014
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Review: 'This Wonderful Life'

People's Light finds the sentiment and magic in Steve Murray's snarky 'This Wonderful Life.'

Review: 'This Wonderful Life'

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By Jim Rutter

For THE INQUIRER

Given enough time, some jerk will eventually turn everything a culture holds dear into camp. For a recent example, see People’s Light’s production of Steve Murray’s This Wonderful Life.

In fairness, Frank Capra’s beloved It’s a Wonderful Life supplies plenty of fodder for a campy approach. Murray’s one-person show bursts with snarky remarks or ridiculous exaggeration, picking on the movie’s low budget effects, poking fun at a young George Bailey’s curious resemblance to Jimmy Stewart, noticing the cameo role played by Alfalfa from The Little Rascals or ridiculing the mashed lips and smushed cheeks of George and Mary’s first kiss. 

For 75 minutes, actor Jerry Richardson serves up a running commentary while reenacting most of the film’s scenes. His versatile performance shifts unnoticeably through a portrayal of over two dozen parts—crouching into Potter’s wheelchair, or squatting as Zuzu to tug on George’s coat—as he embellishes each character’s voice with humorous caricature.

Murray’s approach forces us to step back a bit from nostalgic sentimentality. For a Christmas show, “Did you ever notice how much of this film is about money?” Richardson asks; later he calls attention to the film’s stereotypes of eager Italian immigrants and sassy African-American housekeepers. Or maybe George just fears success? Given Richardson’s portrayal of world-weary fatigue, Murray could have titled his show “Stuck in Bedford Falls.”

But David Bradley’s balanced direction and Gregory Scott Miller’s captivating lighting ensures that like the best camp, this production pokes its fun from a place of sincere affection, never once diminishing the magic of Capra’s tale.

And just like the film, the magic still works, even if “in quotes.” Waves of applause rippled through the audience after each of George’s self-sacrifices or moments of redemption, and everyone leapt to their feet after the rapid wrap-up when the angel Clarence finally gets his wings. At People’s Light, this campy take finds that sappy, sentimental center that even the snarkiest Scrooge would smile at.

This Wonderful Life. Runs through December 23 at People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd. Malvern. Tickets: $25 to $35. Information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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