Merry Christmas, George Bailey 12/12/2002
MPC Theater takes on an icon, and comes up smiling.
Thursday, December 12, 2002
Photo: Face Time--Morgan Stock (left) makes a rare on-stage appearance; (right) Denise Guarneri, Gary Bolen and Dierdre McCauley help retell George Bailey''s popular tale.
Frank Capra''s 1946 film It''s a Wonderful Life has achieved the status of American icon, thanks in no small part to the inspired performances of James Stewart (his first film after returning home from World War II), Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore. Both Capra and Stewart named it as their favorite film. Since the 1960s, when its yearly television showing brought it to the attention of a wider audience, It''s a Wonderful Life has become the Christmas film. George Bailey, the central figure in the tale, was not simply played by Jimmy Stewart; to generations of audiences he is Jimmy Stewart. How then can a theater company hope to successfully mount a stage production of this beloved film?
The answer is, the theater doesn''t try to mount a production of the film. Instead, they look to radio. In the 1940s, the Lux Soap Radio Theater produced "radio movies," adaptations of films for radio starring the films'' original casts. The adaptation of It''s a Wonderful Life was called Merry Christmas, George Bailey, and it is this script that MPC''s theater department is currently producing. It is an inspired choice. The audience is treated to watching a radio broadcast with actors at microphones, a live foley or sound effect artist, and lit "applause" and "on the air" signs. Because of the minimal staging, we are left free to imagine, and as we listen to the lines our mind''s-eye returns to the well-known movie scenes. The MPC company is not trying to replace good old Jimmy and Donna and Lionel; they are supplementing them.
For those who have no television, the story, in brief, revolves around George Bailey, a good man in a small town who has always done the right thing, even when it was the more difficult choice. When he must confront the greatest crisis in his life, he is helped by Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, who shows him how his life has improved the lives of those he loves. He is reminded not only of how precious life is, but of how precious it is to love and be loved. The MPC production is very much an in-house affair. The company is comprised of tried and true actors, MPC Theater Department acting and technical faculty, and simple theater lovers. Though this mixed talent makes for some spotty acting, the cast is so clearly engaged in the show that it is easy to overlook the clunky moments.
As George Bailey, Gary Bolen appears to be having a wonderful time. He is relaxed and playful, seeming to say "Hey, I know I''m not what you were expecting, but come on with me and we''ll have some fun." This makes him eminently watchable. Jerry DeBono as Clarence the Angel is a delightful mix of naivete and wisdom, perfect for this character. Morgan Stock as the irascible Mr. Potter proves that he is still worthy of the Peninsula-wide veneration he receives. Patrick McEvoy, in several roles, has a likeable and easy presence. As the town tart Violet, Dierdre McCauley finds the right balance of adding her own flair and staying true to the interpretation of Gloria Grahame, the film''s Violet. Peter DeBono as Clarence''s angelic coach slips too often into uninterested-reporter tone, and Denise Guarneri never finds the depths of Mary''s character, staying on a chirpy superficial level. But the ensemble remains solid and engaging, especially with the presence of Michael Robbins, Nancy Kocher and Michael Jacobs (who makes lots of noise without ever opening his mouth!).
Whether you have seen the film It''s a Wonderful Life or not, you will enjoy seeing the hour-long radio play adaptation, Merry Christmas, George Bailey. All proceeds from this Christmas confection benefit the scholarship fund of the MPC Theater Company.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey continues on the MPC Main Stage through Dec. 22.