Confession: I’ve never seen the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Or at least, I’ve seen it only peripherally, as a child, running from one room to another on a Christmas sugar high. I’m also too young to have listened to a radio play. So I came to Portland Center Stage’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play a complete novice on all fronts. And it was a delightful way to experience this story for the first time.
The show begins in a radio studio, with actors supplying the music, sound effects and dialogue. And get ready to count yourselves among them — audience members are called upon to contribute to the show as an honorary seventh cast member. After intermission, the show morphs into a more traditional performance for the emotional climax. I was sad to see the bright costumes, creative sound effects and goofy commercials go, but I could tell from the audience reaction that a serious wave of nostalgia hit when the second act began.
Should you bring your kids? Most readers will be familiar with the plot and know that discussion of suicide is the most significant trigger. The show also contains smoking and a mild joke about drinking. I would say the biggest issue to consider is attention span. Since the first half of the show takes place in the radio studio, with the actors voicing multiple roles in different accents, it could be confusing for a younger child. And keep in mind that the play covers the life of George Bailey — twice. But the show is certainly family-friendly and recommended for ages 8 and up.
These actors have a heavy load to carry — not least the weight of audience expectations for a show like this — and they meet the challenge with significant talent, a spirit of fun, and infectious energy. I was already a die-hard Treasure Lunan fan after seeing their performance as Aunt Ester Tyler in Gem of the Ocean. In this show, my spouse and I both were impressed by Lunan’s range. Aunt Ester was nowhere to be seen, and we loved Lunan’s portrayal of the angel Clarence.
After the show, in the parking garage elevator, two sets of strangers were gushing about how much actor John San Nicolas as George Bailey sounds like Jimmy Stewart. I’ll have to take their word for it.
Call up that relative of yours who always turns on the film at the holiday gathering. Say you want to give their present a little early, and take them to see this heartwarming show. Instead of gifting the latest gadget, make a Christmas memory the two of you will treasure forever.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
When: November 19-December 24
Access: BIPOC Affinity Night on December 14, Audio Described on December 4, Sign Interpreted on December 8, Open Captioned on December 10.
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