by Rikki Lee Travolta
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the more famous holiday stories enjoyed throughout the US starting around this time of the season. Now Elgin Theatre Company proudly brings “It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play” to the far northwest suburbs of Chicago.
The cast and creative staff for ETC’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” have clearly poured their hearts and souls into this production. From the stadium seating in the audience at Elgin Art Showcase, you can see the pride and delight on each performer’s face as they take the stage and then deliver a 90-minute piece of touching holiday entertainment.
Skillfully directed by Regina Belt-Daniels. “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” stays true to the storyline of the famous film, plus adds an array of new treats – such as a foley artist creating radio sound effects live on stage while the story is being told. There are also some very witty and sometimes very silly songs and commercial interludes added as well.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” premiered as a film in 1946. It starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey – a small-town man who has always given up his dreams of experiencing the world in order to help his family and others in the community. When life seems at its worst, George contemplates what life would be like if he’d never been born – which a guardian angel second-class magically shows him. This results in a whole new appreciation by George for his life and his family.
The film was based on a self-published booklet by Philip Van Doren Stern and was both produced and directed by Frank Capra. However, as much as modern audiences love the holiday classic, it initially bombed at the box office.
In 1974 the film became available in the public domain after the studio failed to properly extend its copyright. This allowed any station anywhere to air the film without having to pay licensing and royalty fees. So, a lot of television stations did just that – added it to their holiday programming. The repeated exposure had an effect on the general public, as people throughout the country gradually warmed to the film before finally growing to cherish its heartwarming story.
Walking into the performance space in Elgin for ETC’s exuberant production, appetites for excellence are surely whetted by the incredible art deco set design by Barry Norton. Norton’s stunning set instantly transports the evening to WBFR radio in Manhattan on Christmas Eve circa the 1940s. It is the perfect invitation to a night of seasonal fun with a few heartstring moments tossed in as well.
Community theatre can be a particularly moving form of entertainment. While some of the talent you see on community theatre stages is of a level you’d find in the most competitive professional programs, for whatever reason the performers choose to embrace the arts as a hobby and not a career. There are also those who simply love performing, as well as those who might not have much experience. But the magic comes from all these people of diverse skill levels working together as a family of sorts – something all of us in the community can applaud and enjoy.
In this production, George Bailey is played by Gordy Whiting. The key to George Bailey is making him a wholeheartedly likable fellow. Whiting has that humble, everyman quality and soft-spoken lilt that the role requires. He is likable, and so is his George.
Audrey Gniech does a phenomenal job as George’s wife Mary. She expertly captures the innocence of youth during Mary’s younger years and the maturity and wisdom of her later station in life as a wife and mother.
The evening’s festivities are narrated by radio host Freddie Filmore, played by William Athow. Athow is a dependable performer who shines whenever he takes center stage.
In order to capture the redemption of spirit so pertinent to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” story, the show requires just the right heavenly intervention. This comes in the form of guardian angel second class Clarence – played endearingly by Paul Lockwood. It is his job to show George what he has to be appreciative of. If he does his job correctly, perhaps he will finally get a promotion and earn his angel wings.
Dwight Brown looks sharp in a stunning white suit as Clarence’s heavenly supervisor. Like Lockwood, he is an excellent actor who delivers just the right touch of otherworldliness to the story.
Also a standout in the supporting cast is Jami Johnson, who plays multiple roles but really shines as the girl battling Mary for George’s affection. Devon Ortiz, Shirley May Byrnes, and Rhys Read also perform multiple roles and instill in each of them their own unique character qualities. They all shine as they connect to the enthusiastic audience.
No production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be complete without its villain. Brian Rabinowitz is spot-on perfect in his delivery of the words of the heartless Mr. Potter who wants to bankrupt George and his family’s business, and earn unbridled power over the townsfolk in the process. Rabinowitz will make you want to boo his nasty character – the sign of a great actor.
As the foley artist creating the sounds of doors slamming, glass breaking, and feet walking, Jim Pierce is wonderful. His choice of sound-making devices and the sheer enjoyment you see on his face as he uses them to create sounds is inspiring.
Not to be outdone by their adult counterparts, Teagan Nauman and Sebastian Rus are absolutely adorable playing all the child roles in the story. Both Rus and Nauman have bright futures in theater ahead of them.
Rounding out the cast are John Mayhall as the recorded voice of the stage manager and sign actor Andrew Ross, who performs with the cast during Sunday matinees.
Elgin Art Showcase is an attractive performance space in the heart of downtown Elgin. It is, however, not your typical theater. As such, lights can sometimes be an issue. Pat Henderson has done a bang-up job lighting the show and creating the moments of artistic ambiance that can make a production magnificent.
Sound design by David L. Snyder and costumes by Dee Korby and Joanna Wester add to the overall entertainment experience. Facebook and media manager Madeline Franklin, producer Richard Grieger, and jack-of-all-trades Jon Kamp also make their mark as well.
Get a jump start on your holiday festivities by scheduling a time to see “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” adapted by Joe Landry. The play runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 19th.
Photos courtesy of Regina Belt-Daniels and Jon Kramp.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
Another variation of this review runs in NW Herald/Shaw Media.
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