Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: It's a Wonderful Life in New Hope

Stage adaptations of It's a Wonderful Life have been proliferating, and though no one version dominates, Joe Landry's at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope feels more viable than many: It rightly emerges as a fanfare for the common man, even if it's lighter than lightweight.

Review: It's a Wonderful Life in New Hope

Stage adaptations of It's a Wonderful Life have been proliferating, and though no one version dominates, Joe Landry's at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope feels more viable than many: It rightly emerges as a fanfare for the common man, even if it's lighter than lightweight.

Subtitled A Live Radio Play, the Landry script doesn't try to stage the original small-town setting. It's set at a 1940s radio studio, where the story is being acted out for microphones, the six-member cast playing a variety of roles that, through the considerable power of suggestion, make the stage feel far more populated than it is. In 1940s radio style, the actors give highly inflected line readings, supported by a sound effects.

Anyone who feels shortchanged won't for long. The elements that made radio drama work in the 1940s have retained their power. Soon, you no longer feel the characters are outside you. They're all but in your head, having a subtle dialogue with your own holiday history.

As the story's hero, George Bailey, is about to jump off a bridge - having realized he's worth more money dead than alive - is it a problem if his plan seems like a remarkably expedient (if extreme) solution to his complicated business problems? Not necessarily.

George gives up his grand career ambitions to stay in small-town America to run a savings-and-loan alternative to his draconian counterpart, Henry Potter - and you're right with him as he stops at nothing to save his business for the good of the town. Even if it means ending his own life.

Such a feat is possible because the actors play the whole thing as a matter of life and death, with old-radio campiness held at bay by director Gordon Greenberg. No surprise that the actors all have first-cast Broadway credits, including Doylestown-raised American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini as George; lovely Jill Paice as his wife; Kevin Pariseau as the evil Potter; and, most virtuosically, Lauren Milina playing various tarts as well as the cello.

The script isn't uniformly successful. George's guardian angel seems one-dimensionally obsessed with earning his wings. The film's panorama of Potterville - the toxic city that would have evolved had George never lived - isn't captured by Landry's words. But by that point in the show, you're either hooked or you're not, and the Saturday matinee audience was hooked indeed.

 

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Through Dec. 30 at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope.

Tickets: $29 to $54.

Information: 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.

 


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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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