‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ shows surprising appeal as radio/stage production

By Liz Keill

MADISON, NJ – The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has selected a nostalgic and heartwarming version of the classic Frank Capra movie from the 1140’s to entertain holiday audiences. “It’s a Wonderful Life” has somehow become a classic Christmas entertainment, with its story of redemption and small-town life.

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Directed by Doug West, the pitch-perfect cast does a bang-up job of impersonating some of our most beloved and hated characters. John Keabler as George Bailey, the young man who has dreams of seeing the world, captures the frustrations and determination to save his father’s savings and loan company. He has a bit of the Jimmy Stewart charm from the film, sometimes eroded by frustration.  His arch enemy is wonderfully played by John Ahlin as Mr. Potter, the greedy, wealthy businessman in Bedford Falls.

Susan Maris is Mary, the young woman George marries, who stands by him through it all. Andy Paterson is the soulful Clarence, angel second class, until he earns his wings.

What’s especially delightful are the commercial breaks, when the three women in the cast, including Elizabeth Colwell and Tina Stafford, sing like the Andrews Sisters about Brill crème, or some such hair conditioner.  Stafford is droll in an assortment of roles, including George Bailey’s mother and Mary’s mother. She’s also hilarious as one of the Bailey children. Colwell plays Violet, the flirtatious young woman who George helps out when she wants to leave town. She’s also one of the youngsters on the radio program.

James Michael Reilly does a quick change act as Uncle Billy, Martini and an assortment of other characters. Russell Sperberg is George’s successful younger brother, Harry, but also plays the piano and impersonates yet another of the children.  Leavell Jovon Johnson is the host of the radio program, but also steps into the action at times.

Steven Beckel handled the sound design, which is fun to observe, with a pail of water serving as a pond, a wind machine, doors slamming and a host of effects. Warren Pace is Foley Artist. Costumes by Natalie Loveland replicate the 1940s look and the radio station set is designed by Charlie Calvert.

As familiar as you may be with the movie version, this stage production can still bring a tear to your eye. George ultimately realizes that he has led a wonderful life and has made a huge difference to others as well. When the cast sings “White Christmas” to the audience at the end, it’s an ideal way to be truly in the holiday spirit.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” continues at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through Dec. 31. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.