For many people, the holiday season doesn't begin until they have watched Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. This year you can watch the story of George Bailey live--at least some of it--in this radio adaptation. The production, directed by Stuart Ross, re-creates that broadcast, the set designed by Gary Wissman to look like a recording studio complete with a sound effects artist, as well as an organist. The four lead performers will change each week, though the ensemble cast--each playing a variety of roles--remains the same.
This Wonderful Life first aired in 1947, using a script edited from the original by Capra, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett. Delivered in a hurried 70 minutes, including extended "commercial breaks," it lacks the in-depth development provided in the movie, which is necessary to give the lead characters--and the crucial moments in the plot--sufficient emotional weight.
The opening weekend cast included Michael Richards as George Bailey, Orson Bean as Clarence, and Sara Rue as Mary. The Announcer/Narrator was played by Susan Sullivan. With assistance from the sound effects artist (Tony Palermo) and the organist (Jonathan Green), Sullivan introduces the performers and makes a few announcements. Holding scripts and alternating turns at the microphones, the players retell the story of George Bailey, the man whose life didn't turn out as he hoped, despite marrying a wonderful woman named Mary and running a small but important savings-and-loan. George believes the world would be better had he never been born, and Clarence, an angel hoping to earn his wings, grants George's wish.
Subsequent casts will have their hands full trying to equal these engaging performances. Richards, best-known for his role as Kramer on TV's Seinfeld, shows remarkable range as a serious actor. As George he was heartfelt, mixing healthy portions of whimsy and anguish. Rue creates a Mary who exuded love and strength. Bean is perfect as the naive and caring Clarence. And among the several fine ensemble performers, the most memorable is Harrison White, who provides genuine comic moments as forgetful Uncle Billy. Unfortunately the edited script leaves out scenes that help explain George's frustration or the depth of his happiness in the climax. This Wonderful Life works as the radio production it pretends to be. It doesn't succeed as theatre, in particular for those unfamiliar with the movie version.
Presented by and at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Dec. 9-Jan. 1, 2006. (626) 356-7529.