Review: It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Comes Alive in Lone Tree

Once a year or so, the Lone Tree Arts Center enlists the services of director Randal Myler and puts on a play; these productions are always impeccably cast and stylishly staged. This year’s is a festive holiday piece, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, writer Joe Landry’s version of the much-loved 1946 movie, which has the story unfold as a 1940s radio show, complete with audience applause and commercial jingles.

Like A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life is a story of redemption and a celebration of human kindness. George Bailey is an upright citizen of a fictive small American town called Bedford Falls. As a lad, he has large goals and ambitions: He wants to go to college, travel, build a business career. But circumstances trip him up at every turn. His father dies, which means he has to take over Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, which keeps many of the town’s citizens afloat. Then his brother, who was supposed to assume the reins after college, marries and takes a job in New York offered by his new father-in-law. Stuck, George soldiers on, marries, has children and remains as honorable a businessman as his much-loved father. Throughout, he fights the schemes of wealthy soulless capitalist Mr. Potter, who ends up playing the ugly trick that puts George out of business.

Desperate, George stands on a bridge over the river, contemplating suicide. But it’s Christmas Eve, and as we all know, this is a time of miracle and transformation. Sure enough, an angel arrives to intervene, and it’s no ordinary angel. Clarence Odbody is an insecure fumbler, and though he’s been around close to three centuries, he hasn’t earned his wings yet. George represents his last chance. To save George’s life, Clarence reveals what life in Bedford Falls would be like if George had never lived. Now called Pottersville, the place is suffering under the control of George’s nemesis, Mr. Potter. Needless to say, a happy ending eventually ensues.

There’s some food for thought in this gentle show. The idea that small acts of generosity can have very big consequences is always worth pondering. And though the script is anything but overtly political, both the film and this play make a significant statement about immigration. Italian immigrants were persecuted and despised in the 1940s — Mr. Potter calls them “a bunch of garlic eaters” — but one of the people George helps is a Giuseppe Martini, who ends up running his own bar.

Staging Wonderful Life as a radio play — with the actors apparently reading from scripts, hilarious sung commercials for Bremel Hair Tonic and Dux Toiletries, a silvery sign flashing applause cues, and a Foley man visibly creating sound effects like clomping shoes, doors slamming and high winds with a variety of ingenious, low-tech objects — is very effective. It adds an element of humor and a slight distance that mute sentimentality while still allowing for real feeling.

The set is perfect, as are the period costumes; the lighting, including the subdued blue of the sky glimpsed through high windows, is evocative. But the best part is seeing some of our finest actors, almost all of whom graced or occasionally still grace the Denver Center for the Performing Arts stage, back in action.
We’ve missed Jamie Horton, whom theater lovers watched grow from a lithe stripling to a mature character actor in dozens of plays in Denver over more than twenty years before he left in 2006 for academia, and his George is a pleasure. Randy Moore brings appealing vulnerability and eccentricity to the role of Clarence. Stephanie Cozart and Janet Dickinson (the only actor new to the local scene) take on all the women’s roles successfully, with Dickinson primarily playing George’s sweet stalwart wife, Mary, and Cozart taking the part of a flirtatious teen as well as George’s mother, George’s little daughter, Zuzu, and even (for about two seconds) an adorably crying baby. Michael Santo has an infectiously great time as wicked Mr. Potter, and the indispensable Mark Rubald brings warmth and humanity to a number of roles, including the memorable Foley man.

Swift and entertaining, funny and sentimental: It all adds up to a genuine seasonal treat.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by the Lone Tree Arts Center through December 18, 10075 Commons Street in Lone Tree, 720-509-1000,
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman