The film It's a Wonderful Life is a much-loved American classic. Some families watch it together year after year at this time, like Miracle on 34th Street and varying versions of A Christmas Carol. So the first question that arises when you hear that author Joe Landry has made a staged version of a 1940s radio play of It's a Wonderful Life — with actors standing around, scripts in hand, "Applause" and "On Air" signs, and sound effects produced by a Foley man at a table — is why? Perhaps he'd noticed the popularity of The 1940s Radio Hour. Perhaps he knew that theater companies around the country need holiday fare, and that a show like this would be relatively cheap and easy to produce. But while this Colorado Shakespeare Festival production does work as holiday entertainment, without the visual magic of film, the story seems pretty hokey.
Like Dickens's Carol, the plot of It's a Wonderful Life promotes the idea of individual kindness as an antidote to the suffering caused by out-of-control greed and commerce — certainly a theme that resonates with us now. The idea has power because on one the hand, it's heartwarming and simple — even simplistic — but on the other, paradoxically, it's true. Exploitation may be systemic and woven deep into the social and political fabric, but the answer really does lie in getting individual people to care about each other. A good heart, as Shakespeare's Henry V once said (somewhat disingenuously as he wooed a princess won by force) is the sun and the moon. What makes It's a Wonderful Life interesting and original is the twist in which a good man who's been driven to suicidal despair is invited by an angel to imagine what life would have been in his town of Bedford Falls had he never existed. George Bailey has led a quietly upright life, sacrificing his own goals and ambitions to run his father's faltering business, support his brother and serve his fellow citizens. He is sympathetic to immigrants — Italian at the time — and the less fortunate, and a loving husband and father. But then he finds himself mired in debt and unable to go on. That's when the angel Clarence Odbody appears — but he's only an angel Second Class. He won't earn his wings until he fulfills the mission of saving George. This he does by showing him the deaths he prevented and the miserable condition of his workers and neighbors in Bedford Falls once it has fallen under the control of unprincipled businessman Harry F. Potter.
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This staging comes with cookies and hot cider. The cast leads the audience in carols, and pauses periodically to read messages from the audience for people supposedly listening in. They sing fake commercials that are acknowledgments of the festival's actual sponsors, and they're pretty clever — though I did have trouble deciding whether this device was tacky or sort of sweetly hometown-y. The show is static by definition, with the cast members reading their lines, so none of the actors gets to go full out or draw from a deep emotional well. Bobby Labartino is a pleasant George; Jake Walker deploys a number of accents in several roles, including Clarence; Jamie Ann Romero is a delight as George's little daughter Zuzu, sexy Violet and a few other characters; and Crystal Verdon Eisele exudes a benevolent calm as wife Mary. Bob Buckley's big performance in several roles, including Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter, is welcome and enlivening. The film is a parable about death and rebirth that asks important questions about the meaning of an individual life; the stage version lacks that level of depth and power.