It's a Wonderful Life. 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. 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 like in his town had he never existed. George Bailey has led a quietly upright life, sacrificing his own goals and ambitions to help others — but then he finds himself mired in debt and unable to go on. That's when the angel Clarence Odbody appears, and 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. The plot is so well known, the movie such a classic that you have to wonder why author Joe Landry decided to create 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. Perhaps he'd noticed the popularity of The 1940's 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. Minus the visual magic of the film, the story appears pretty hokey. But still, this production — which comes with cookies and hot cider — does work as pleasant holiday entertainment. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through December 23, Mainstage Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed December 15.
The 1940's Radio Hour. The setting for The 1940's Radio Hour is the Algonquin Room at the Hotel Astor in New York, where WOV radio is about to go on the air. In the days before social media and effortless continual connection, the excitement of radio was intense. WOV may be a funky outfit whose members make their living waiting tables or driving cabs, but these folks know they're reaching thousands of people and representing comfort and home to America's soldiers overseas. On the other hand — except for the anxiety-ridden station manager, Feddington, who's continually bellowing commands that no one pays any attention to — they're also immersed in their own lives. Gum-chewing Ginger has an ongoing flirtation with sound-effects man Lou; perky soda-chugging Connie is involved with Yalie B.J. Gibson; Wally, who delivers the coffee, longs for a role with the show; Biff, who will leave for combat in the morning, expects to be back for the 1943 Christmas special, since the war will surely be over by then. Seated quietly in his corner, flipping through magazines and running bets sotto voce on the phone, is stage-door keeper Pops. You don't get all this information at once; the biographies emerge in bits and pieces as part of a rambling pastiche of comedy bits, genuine commercials of the era and wonderful old songs that simply can't help evoking nostalgia: "That Old Black Magic," "Ain't She Sweet?," "Blue Moon." The opening is low-key and naturalistic, with Pops in his corner, Lou setting up, other performers casually entering, but it's at odds with the style of the rest of the production, which is hammy, twitchy, glittery and, above all, extremely loud. Still, there's a lot of serious singing talent on the stage. Presented by the Arvada Center through December 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed December 8.
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Phantom. While playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston were still putting together Phantom, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera
trundled onto the scene, and their backers vanished — along with any chance of a Broadway opening. This Phantom is much smaller-scale than Webber's, with less spectacle and more emphasis on the agonized humanity of the Phantom himself — though all the Gothic impulses animating Gaston LeRoux's original novel are still present. The plot: Beautiful Christine's beautiful soprano is discovered by the womanizing Count Philippe de Chandon, who secures her a place at the Paris Opera. But the organization has just been taken over by the Cholets, a nasty, scheming couple who have fired faithful long-term manager Carriere and intend to use the opera to showcase the ghastly voice of self-infatuated Carlotta Cholet. Poor Christine ends up in the costume shop rather than on stage, but beneath the imposing gray edifice lurks Erik, with his cohort of writhing lost souls. Music is his only solace, and having once heard Christine sing, he promptly offers her lessons; the first of these gives rise to one of the loveliest and most charming duets of the evening, "You Are Music." Musical-comedy ingenues are usually hard to like — pretty, simpering puppets — but Maggie Sczekan is not of this ilk. She has the kind of rich, expressive voice you want to listen to all night, and all the range and musicality this operatic (or at least operetta-ish) score demands; Markus Warren turns in an equally strong turn as the Phantom. Their performances are supported by clean, professional staging; a cunningly contrived set; elegant costumes; and a group of poised and experienced actors who know when to move into the limelight and when to step back and let the principals have the stage. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through February 18, 2012, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed November 24.