W hen playwright Joe Landry first saw Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, “It blew me away. It made me look at old film in a different way.” So Landry turned the old film into a stage play, which in turn behaves like a live radio broadcast.
Landry’s distinctive and economical adaptation, which allows a cast of five (plus an indispensible sound man) to handle dozens of roles without having to shift a single set or backdrop, was first done at the Stamford Center for the Arts in 1996 and now gets over 100 productions around the country every wintertime. A fan of the nostalgic Woody Allen film Radio Days and of Rupert Holmes’ AMC TV series about the golden age of radio drama, Remember WENN, Landry came up with a live-broadcast framework for Wonderful. “I didn’t know at the time,” he says, “that there
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It’s a Wonderful Life plays through Dec. 31.
had been actual radio versions of the movie, with Jimmy Stewart in them, back in the 1940s.” (The Long Wharf production is set in 1946, the same year that Capra’s film premiered.)
Landry’s pleased that he’s been able to craft a version of an extremely well-known story which has nonetheless proven to be versatile and appealing to theater directors. Eric Ting’s extravagant Long Wharf mainstage rendition makes the most of the radio station concept, with a detailed studio setting, a couple of flashing “APPLAUSE” signs that bring the audience into the action, and an
elaborate opening routine in which onstage sound man Nathan Roberts mimics the sounds and gestures of the radio-show actors as they arrive for work.
Once the actual plot gets going, “It’s a darker story than people may remember,” Landry suggests. The hero, good-hearted family man George Bailey, has decided he’s “worth more dead than alive” after a series of setbacks, and is about to do away with himself when an angel named Clarence arrives to show him what the world would be like without him. The Long Wharf production doesn’t shy away from the darkness, and adds some extra supernatural elements to the proceedings, but also sparks plenty of laughs, from the rubber-faced mugging of announcer/actor Dan Domingues to the speed with which Domingues and the other actors switch voices and characters. Alex Moggridge, who plays George Bailey, is the only performer who sticks to a single role.
Landry calls Ting’s production “multi-layered” and “concepty,” and says it has benefited greatly from a longer rehearsal period than most theaters can offer. “The Foley arts [sound effects] equipment is more extensive than any that I’ve ever seen,” he says, and he praises the intricate work of the ensemble cast.
It’s a far cry from the bare-room-with-microphones affairs some smaller productions of Wonderful have worked up, but Landry’s overjoyed by the many ways his adaptation has inspired people. “I have a lot of faith in Eric. I’m up for any ride.”