The Bangor Opera House has been transformed into a broadcast studio complete with large microphones, a live band, jingles advertising local businesses, actors playing multiple roles and flashing “applause” signs that tell theatergoers when to put their hands together for Penobscot Theatre Company’s holiday production.
Not only is the show a delightful tribute to Frank Capra’s 1946 film classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it’s a loving homage to live radio as well.
By setting the show in a studio, playwright Joe Landry sets up a play within a play that allows more movement onstage and more direct interaction between the characters than if the story were presented as a radio play performed on a bare stage. The use of that theatrical device means “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” never becomes static or stagy. The ads for the show’s sponsors are clever and funny and come at perfect moments in between tense scenes.
Roderick Menzies of Los Angeles, who is making his PTC debut directing this show, easily could have turned it into a cynical parody rather a loving sendup of live radio broadcasts that were done in by the advent of television. The decision to have the actors give up their scripts in the second act and face each other gives the final, climactic moments of the story a touching intimacy.
For those few who are unfamiliar with the film, “It’s a Wonderful Live” is the story of George Bailey, who works for his father at the Savings & Loan in Bedford Falls, U.S.A. He faces a crisis one Christmas Eve, but is able to overcome it when an angel named Clarence shows him how different the town would be if George had never been born.
Landry’s radio version has an actor named Jake Laurents (Tony Larkin) portray George Bailey and an actress named Sally Applewhite (Blythe Coons) plays Mary Hatch, his eventual wife. Three performers — Freddie Filmore (Mark Chambers), Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Ben Layman) and Lana Sherwood (Jennifer Shepard) — take on all the other parts. There is a Foley artist, Francois “Francis” des Bruits, onstage doing all the sound effects and three “cadets,” Bobby, Betty and Dottie, who sing the commercials.
Although he’s probably too young and too handsome to be George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, Larkin is delightfully sincere in the role. His biography in the program says that this is the fourth holiday season he’s been in a production of the play and it shows.
Larkin is comfortable and natural in the play within a play. He makes George’s despair so palpable, theatergoers almost leap from their seats to keep him from jumping off the bridge into the icy water below. Larkin’s energy and enthusiasm in the role infect his fellow actors and the audience so that by the end of the play, the audience is as happy to be alive as George Bailey is.
Coons as the actress Sally Applewhite at times seems to be channeling Donna Reed, who played the part in the film. Mary truly is a good woman in an old-fashioned sense, but Coons brings out the woman’s strength and ingenuity. The actress and Larkin have a quiet chemistry that gently wafts off the stage and envelops the audience.
The three actors who portray other major characters and minor ones are equally effective and entertaining. As Freddie Filmore, Chambers of San Francisco is wonderfully evil as Ol’ Man Potter, the villain of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Local actor Layman’s Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood creates a blundering, foolish, but still lovable Uncle Billy. And Shepard, who co-founded ImprovAcadia in Bar Harbor, is equally charming as Bedford Falls’ bad girl Violet and the Baileys’ little girl, Zuzu.
Luke Cote, a Bangor High School graduate, as the Foley guy is fascinating to watch as he makes the sound of men’s and women’s high-heeled footsteps, breaking ice, ringing phones, money being counted and sounds too numerous to list. By the end of the show, theatergoers are convinced he’s the hardest working guy or gal on stage.
Local students Robert Brangwynne, Elisabeth Budd and Lana Sabbagh as singing cadets Bobby, Betty and Dottie, respectively, are terrific.
The design team of: Sean McClelland, scenic; Jonathan Spencer, lighting; Brandie Larkin, sound; Kevin Koski, costumes; and Meredith Perry, properties, have given the production a classy and classic look and feel. The three-piece band, under the direction of Larrance Fingerhut on piano, with Scott Rapaport on reeds and Lori Wingo on trumpet, gives just the right amount of musical support to the players to convince the audience it really is radio and not theater on stage.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is a much needed antidote to recent violence at home and abroad. In this drama, George Bailey learns that he makes a difference in the lives of many in small ways every day. PTC’s gift to the community this December is a welcome reminder that most days the good people do far outweighs the evil deeds of a few.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” will be performed through Dec. 27 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St. For more information visit http://www.penobscottheatre.org/ or call 942-3333.