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Joe Landry has found a sweet spot, for sure, with his radio play adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life. While many will remember the tale of George Bailey from the classic 1946 movie, this version puts a new spin on the telling of this wonderful story.
Recall in this tale of love, loss, and redemption, George Bailey considers ending his life on Christmas Eve, opting to give up his dreams to serve as benevolent business leader in small town USA (Bedford Falls). Spoiler alert: Bailey’s guardian angel,”Clarence” – still earning his wings – arrives to convince Bailey that his suicide plan will hurt others far more than himself. That’s the classic tale Landry brings to the stage in a brave new way as radio play.
The setting of It’s a Wonderful Life is the same time as the Golden Age of Radio,” Landry shared in his post-performance interview with director Giovanna Sardelli. “So I thought, maybe that could work like a radio play, maybe there’s a way to do it playing into the idea of the live radio broadcast elements and also telling the story that way.” Landry worked with an original cast of some twenty actors in a high school play version of the show, “and then every year it got smaller and smaller; it started with a cast of twelve and then ten and then eight and then five…” which is what is suggested now.
Only five, albeit veteran, actors for this story is an amazing feat, particularly since three actors play, as Sardelli describes it, “the entire town of Bedford Falls.” Clarity, Landry underscored, is extremely important in the story telling. There is a built-in narration with the superintendent of angels telling Clarence the story, so it’s easy for an audience to follow. But presenting so many parts with so few people? Landry says he was so blessed to have such great character actors that he says he was “like, sure, (one person) can play a conversation with the father, and Potter, and Billy all at the same time…!” And they do- sometimes playing, even, an adult one moment and then a child. One can only imagine what line memorization must have been like!
Landry was a fan of the film version of It’s a Wonderful Life; it was a movie he saw growing up. He says he had no idea what it was when he first came upon it in a local archive, but it certainly left an impact upon him.
“It really blew me away,” Landry said, “not only because it seemed so contemporary for certain reasons- or timeless, I guess we could say- but also the message, I feel, is so touching. It’s something we can use, you know; it’s lovely that it’s considered a Christmas piece because, I think, hearing the message of how each of our lives touch so many others is something that is great to hear, you know, at least once a year and sort of remember that.” Landry does a wonderful job of re-telling the story, choosing excellent moments of narration, even adding in radio ads with singing.
Sardelli has directed the show twice now as a radio play. One of the things she enjoyed was the multi-generational and multi-cultural connections to the film.
“There’s a way into this film for so many people,” Sardelli said, sharing that her own father “looks at the movie and sees the America that he wanted to be a part of, part of the reason he came to the US. The values, the people, all seem familiar.” A huge high point for Sardelli was hearing the present-day lead, Moses Villarama, as George Bailey say on set, “I’m so happy to tell this story and so happy to be in a production where a typical American dreamer can look like me.’ Sardelli shared that his remark “stopped everyone in the room…”
“It’s something that I’ve taken for granted having known it so long,” Landry said. “There’s so many parts of the story that tie us together. I think that goes back to Frank Capra and his body of work- and what it means to be an American… or what it is to be a human, what we all share together…”
“When I produced (the radio play) in 2019, “ Sardelli shared, “it seemed fun and playful.” But when she was asked to revisit it now she found herself asking, “how does this connect to today? And to the original impetus to the movie? The production starts in present day and travels to the past, but one of the questions/reasons people connect so deeply is because it’s about a man in despair, a man who is so lost for a moment but finds healing through the life he’s lived and the people he’s known… it really speaks to being our best self- but doesn’t deny how hard that is…”
“Spoiler alert,” Landry said, “there’s a section in the story where George sees the world differently, and then he goes through that, and I think there may be a parallel to that to what we’ve gone through (with Covid) in the last year and a half…” you know that we’ve been in this different place where things seem sort of familiar, but oh, now we’re doing plays on line, and we’re finding ways to make it work but everything seems slightly off, but then we have a moment where we can go back to the stage…”
As with the original movie, Landry’s production ends with Auld Lang Syne. Thought-provoking, uplifting, and inspiring: TheatreWorks’ It’s a Wonderful Life, the radio play, reminds that, even when things seem their worst, dreams can come true.
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, this production previews Live at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto on December 3 and opens December 4. For anyone “in the know,” this annual holiday favorite would usually take place at the Stanford Vintage Movie House. Note that it will also be available to anyone to view at home.
Leading this new take on an old classic will be Moses Villarama (as George Bailey),a seasoned stage actor who will be making his debut as a radio actor. You might remember Villarama from a prior TheatreWorks production, Writing Fragments Home.
Sarita Ocon (playing George Bailey’s wife, Mary and other roles), also with multiple stage credits, including ACT, Cal Shakes, and Berkeley Rep, also makes her radio debut.
Luisa Sermol plays multiple roles, including Violet, the woman Bailey “saves.” Sermol holds stage credits with TheatreWorks and others, including roles on national television, including Grimm. Phil Wong, another TheatreWorks alum (Four Immigrants, and Currency (online) ), will play Freddie Fillmore and other characters, including a radio announcer and a greedy banker.
Todd Cerveris, all the way from Broadway (South Pacific and Twentieth Century) makes his TheatreWorks debut as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, guardian angel “Clarence,” and others.
Please support Live theater- especially during this critical time- if you can by coming out to the Lucie Stern Theater.
For any of us home-bound, disabled, or otherwise unable to get to the show, again, yes- online tickets are available. Please be generous! Then get out the popcorn, fire up the hot cocoa, settle in and let the Christmas-ing at home begin!
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio PlayPreviews at Lucie Stern Auditorium, Palo Alto, on December 3, 2021, at 8:00pmOpening Night at Lucie Stern Auditorium, Palo Alto, on December 4, 2021Regular Performances after Opening:Tuesdays at 7:30pmWednesdays at 2:00pm and 7:30pmThursdays at 8:00pmFridays at 8:00pmSaturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pmSundays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm