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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Quiltmaker's Gift, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and Nonfat Soy Peppermint Mocha Latte ... with Sprinkles

Tim Shawver, Timothy Pittman, Katie Larson, Traci McCormick, Marshall Glass, and Devon Nickel
Photo Courtesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre
The idea of turning the classic film It's a Wonderful Life into a successful theatrical production seems like a destiny for failure. How can you take the heartfelt performance of Jimmy Stewart and the stellar direction of Frank Capra, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards, and make this story succeed on stage? Turns out you can make it work if you think outside the box, and that is exactly what playwright Joe Landry did when he turned this classic story of love and redemption into a "live" 1940s radio drama. With a talented cast and sure-footed direction, Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of this well-known story soars.

In Lawry's 1996 stage adaptation of the 1946 Capra movie the film becomes a radio drama that originates from a New York City station, WBFR, in the 1940s. With the use of Michelina Abrahamzon's lovely period costume, old fashioned microphones, a sound effects station, and signs that light up "Applause" and "On Air," the production instantly establishes a long ago time and place. The cast of six take turns speaking into the microphones, with scripts in their hands, as they portray the dozens of characters in this beloved story of George Bailey, the idealistic and self-sacrificing man, and Clarence the angel who comes to George's rescue one Christmas Eve when he considers ending his life.

The four men and two women in the cast play radio actors who portray the many characters in the story. The audience becomes the studio audience for WBFR's "Playhouse of the Air." Landry's script, while slightly abridged from the film screenplay, manages to bring all of the memorable moments and colorful characters from the film to vibrant life due to the expressive and different voices that the cast use. There are also a couple of fun period commercials as well as the use of familiar objects to elicit the many sound effects. The combination of all of these elements brings a whole new theatrical spin to the heartwarming joy of the story.

With just one very small exception, Tim Shawver's direction is flawless in how he achieves an abundance of superb performances from his small cast that are an homage to the film actors' portrayals of these characters while also conveying original touches to each part. Marshall Glass brings a lovely sincerity to George. He has the perfect "aw, shucks" positive outlook on life that turns dark and negative with a moving sense of desperation when he thinks that all is lost. As Mary, the woman George is in love with, Katie Larson is warm and engaging and simply lovely. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a phone call that George and Mary share, and Glass and Larson play this scene beautifully.

Timothy Pittman brings an abundance of joy and a sense of playfulness to Clarence while Traci McCormick is appropriately flirty as Violet, the small town girl with big town dreams. Yet they both also play many other characters who are completely different from their main parts with adept agility. Shawver portrays numerous parts including Potter, the antagonist of the plot, and George's simpleton Uncle Billy, both of which he plays skillfully. The famous scene in the film that is a catalyst for George's desperation features both of these characters and Shawver expertly goes back and forth from one part to the other, changing his voice and mannerisms at a breakneck speed.

Devon Nickel is the young, newbie sound effects guy who also plays a few small parts in the radio drama. Nickel has a blast using familiar objects such as a cabinet door, a metal bucket full of water, and shoes on cornflakes to create the illusion of someone shutting a door, a man jumping off a bridge into a river, and footsteps on snow. The character is also somewhat over eager with occasional sound effects mix-ups bringing an added comical touch to the evening. My only complaint is that one of these moments happens in a very dramatic point in the story, and goes on for too long, thus downplaying the effect of that scene.

Landry's idea of turning this classic tale into a radio play makes for a fresh and inventive way of reconnecting with the classic story of love and redemption. ABT's cast does an excellent job of bringing these memorable characters to life. The end result is a holiday treat for fans of the film, those who have yet to discover the movie's joys, and also anyone who likes to experience different types of theatrical endeavors.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through December 24th, 2015, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 776-8400.

Adapted by Joe Landry from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling
Directed by Tim Shawver
Scenic Artist: Pam Miles
Costume Design: Michelina Abrahamzon
Props Master: Ally Baumlin
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Marshall Glass: George / Jake
Katie Larson: Mary / Sally
Traci McCormick: Violet / Lana
Timothy Pittman: Clarence / Harry
Tim Shawver: Potter/ Freddie Filmore
Devon Nickel: Foley Guy

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