By Barry Reszel
Really, who hasn’t in some Christmastide past, flipped on the TV, tuned in to It’s a Wonderful Life, and thought, “Wouldn’t this whole experience be a lot better if Mary Hatch Bailey busted out some operatic aria?”
It’s a lucky time for all those nodding. Because Theatre at the Center’s first-rate production of A Wonderful Life: The Musical, turns Munster, Indiana into a singing and dancing Bedford Falls, New York, putting its own spin on hometown boy George Bailey’s quest for the real meaning of life. (A full plot summary may be read here.)
But to answer the trick question first posed above, any true aficionado of the 1946 Frank Capra film knows from Donna Reed‘s and Jimmy Stewart‘s warbled harmonies in their rendition of “Buffalo Gals” that no one pined for those two actors to star in a musical.
Good thing for Director William Pullinsi his George and Mary can sing the daylights out of the full 24-number songbook penned by Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo (music). Indeed the glorious voices of David Sajewich and Allison Sill are key take-aways from this production, along with the strong work of a large, stellar ensemble who execute Gordon Pierce Schmidt‘s innovative choreography to perfection.
Richard and Jacqueline Penrod‘s functional unit set features an aerial map of Bedford Falls that allows angels Joseph (Rick Rapp) and Clarence (David Perkovich) to peer in on the life events of George Bailey and nemesis Harry F. Potter, the richest and meanest man in town (James Harms). Costume Designer Brenda Winstead‘s work is terrific, too, particularly the gorgeous angels.
Ernie. Bert. Violet Bic. Martini. Harry. Uncle Billy. Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright. It’s all familiar and terribly well performed. And if the songbook lacks a “humming it on the car ride home” song or two, it’s mostly delightful and advances the story. That said, the fully sung scene in the Hatch home, leading to George and Mary’s wedding, would truly be better served with dialogue, no matter how lovely Sill can sing.
And truth be told, though the production is an overall holiday season winner, there are some things gnawing at this reviewer, all of them book-related, that must be shared.
It’s understandable that taking a film to stage requires some change. So moving George’s suicidal moment from a bridge over a raging river to a railroad track, for example, makes perfect sense. But making changes to an iconic piece of artistic expression must be done with greater care than Harnick shows.
To wit, lovers of the film know the Bailey children are Tommy, Petey, Janie and Zuzu. The names conjure the memory: “…let me look at you…Zuzu, my little gingersnap…not a smidge of temperature…” So yeah, there are four Bailey children, not three, and not one of them should be renamed Beth.
Similarly, Harry Bailey’s wife is Ruth Dakin Bailey, not Ruth Reynolds Bailey. What’s the point? Change for change’s sake? And no “Buffalo Gals?” What the heck, Harnick? No wonder your piece hasn’t been done all that often since its inception in 1991. To be sure, there are others, but the point is that details are what make great things iconic, and inexplicable changes to them are indefensible.
This reviewer’s purism aside, the main message here is that A Wonderful Life‘s most logical draw to musical theatre patrons is the infusion of live song and dance into a beloved film. And that’s done most successfully in this lovely production.
Hee Haw and Merry Christmas!
Theatre at the Center presents “A Wonderful Life, the Musical through December 23 at The Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana. More information and tickets are available here.