It’s that time of year when the world falls in love, every song you hear seems to say, Merry Christmas! And no one’s singing or saying it brighter than the good folks over at WBFR: Playhouse of the Air as they prepare for their annual holiday broadcast, this year featuring It’s a Wonderful Life. Fully settled into the hokey yet happy holiday gimmick that is It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, the Annapolis Shakespeare Company brings the treasured holiday classic to its stages for the second year in a row, turning it into somewhat of a Christmas tradition. Directed by Donald Hicken, with the company’s Managing and Artistic Directors reprising their roles, the Frank Capra tale, as adapted to the stage by Joe Landry, arrives just in time for the holidays, reminding us of all the important lessons that Christmas has to offer.
With a set decked out for Christmas, including the old-fashioned big-bulbed Christmas lights wrapped around the poles and the tree, Set Designer JD Madsen has taken care to put the radio studio in the jolly atmosphere of Christmas. Working Property Master Jack Golden to ensure an authenticity of the times, there is a great deal of exacting detail that comes into play regarding the scenic portrait that is laid out on the stage. Of particular note are all the various and sundry props used for the Foley work featured in the radio play, including a thunder board, a water bucket, and countless other bits that create the reality of a live radio drama.
Artistically the piece is beautiful. The only downside to the production, and this is a minor hiccup at best in the missed potential department, is that there is no follow-up for the Radio Studio characters as the show concludes. Director Donald Hicken, along with Sally Boyett— who not only performs in the show but serves as the production’s Assistant Director and Choreographer— spends a great deal of time and dedication to crafting the illusion of the Radio Station and the radio performance personalities. Freddie Filmore and Lana Sherwood (Rob McQuay and Boyett respectively) even wander in a good ten minutes prior to the show’s actual start and interact with the audience in character to promote the liveliness and authenticity of the radio studio atmosphere. When the show concludes and radio broadcast comes to its end, the players flee the stage and that’s it. With such a beautiful build-up and structure to the way the performance opens, it leaves the audience wanting more of that camaraderie and interaction with the radio studio personalities as if they were actually concluding the show with the audience. This missed opportunity aside, the script and its meta-performance are handled delightfully under the vision of Hicken and the talent of the cast.
Boyett has a great many reasons to be recognized in the production, not the least of which is Choreography. Though it’s only featured during the two advertisement jingles, it’s snazzy and well-suited for the era. Her performance as Lana Sherwood— the radio studio personality— is convivial and bright. Between the cheeky interactions with Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood” and her irresistible smile every time she delivers a Foley effect— cheating out to the audience with a charming wink and twinkle in her eye— Boyett creates a multi-dimensional persona out of this surface character. Her work inside the radio play is equally impressive. Her Violet Bick is sassy, her Ma Bailey is warm and accepting, but it’s her Zuzu that takes the cake, with a too-precious for words lisp and deliberately slowed vocal delivery.
Taking up the role of the clever stage clown “Jazzbo”, company member Jamison Foreman is a delight in his many roles both in and out of the radio play. While his subtler role of Clarence seems to be the focus of his “in-play” characters, it’s his accent-laden voice work with cameo roles like Mr. Martini and Mr. Welch that earn him high praises. Foreman has some brilliant scenes as Clarence, shared with Joseph (one of the innumerable characters played by Rob McQuay) that are lit in celestial blue by Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson. This is one of several theatrical gimmicks Mendelson uses throughout the performance to delineate shifts in spatial location and reality when it comes to the narrative of the story. The blue lighting aligns perfectly with the mild nature that Foreman imbues to Clarence, making it feel truly angelic in those moments before he falls down to earth with George Bailey.
The only performers in the production to take on singular roles during the in-play portion of the show are Evan Casey and Olivia Ercolano as George Bailey and Mary Hatch respectively. Ercolano gives a respectable performance as the storybook ingénue, in love with George Bailey right from the get-go and delivering all of her lines accordingly. Costume Designer Sandra Spence gives Ercolano a simple little dress, the perfect look for Mary Hatch— which creates a stark contrast to the racier red shade featured on Lana Sherwood/Violet Bick— which further grounds Ercolano’s portrayal of Mary in her quaint Bedford Falls roots. Casey does an exceptional job of toeing the line between reverent homage to Jimmy Stewart and his own unique flavorful spin on his presentation of George Bailey. The radio persona character of Jake Laurents isn’t given much time to be developed so Casey relies solely upon his role as George Bailey to make his impression upon the audience. Though his emotional intensity in the final scene— after the revelation and experience of never being born— is a smidge on the subtle side, his overall grounding in the story arc of George Bailey is familiar and welcoming.
Stealing the show with his nearly dozen and a half character, Rob McQuay is sensational as Freddie Filmore and all of the individuals he plays in the radio play. Hitting the holiday spirit a bit hard as Freddie, McQuay takes that jovial personality right into the robust voice of the Radio Announcer and engages the audience thoroughly in the dramatic encounter they’re about to hear. While his characterizations of Joseph, Mr. Gower, Ernie, and some dozen others are all distinctive and unique it’s his portrayal of Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter that sets his performance above the rest. In several scenes where he plays the two characters in rapid-fire succession, McQuay mesmerizes and entertains the audience with his ability to snap back and forth between the pair, effectively conversing with himself in those moments. His silly spin-about shenanigans as drunk Uncle Billy are as amusing as his bitter biting remarks as the warped and frustrated Potter. A remarkable performer, McQuay brings vivacious life to both of these principal characters as well as the other people that he performs.
Becoming a welcomed holiday tradition at the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is suited for everyone this holiday season and is thoroughly enjoyable for lovers of theatre and live radio plays alike.
Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes with one intermission
It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through December 24, 2016 at the Annapolis Shakespeare Company in their Studio111— 111 Chinquapin Round Road Suite 114 in Annapolis, MD. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513 or purchase them online.