'It's a Wonderful Life'

When it comes to heartening holiday stories, it's hard to beat the one about George Bailey, unable to fulfill his dream to travel far beyond the borders of Bedford Falls in upstate New York, drawn into a spiral of depression, and rescued by an angel on Christmas Eve.

The tale was Immortalized in the 1946 Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life" with James Stewart and Donna Reed, shown almost as often as department store commercials at this time of the year.

The movie makes an obvious candidate for adaptation. Over the years, it has been turned into a musical a couple of times and at least one play. It has just been transformed again.

ArtsCentric, a theater company founded a decade ago by a local actors and Morgan State University students, will premiere a version of "lt's a Wonderful Life" adapted for the stage by company artistic director Kevin McAllister.

"We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do for the holidays," McAllister says. "We considered 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Miracle on 34th Street,' but then someone mentioned 'It's a Wonderful Life.' I thought, no, that's got to be done just a certain way. Then I felt, wait a moment. It's a universal story about a man who has a firm belief in something. That can speak to everyone."

And to every time period.

McAllister decided to update the story — in this version, the action spans the 1980s to today — and give it a multicultural touch. In addition to African-American, Latino and white actors, the cast includes several multiracial children.

"When you think of George Bailey, you think of a tall white guy, not a short actor who is ambiguously ethnic," says Moses Rodrigues, who has Bolivian, Afro-Brazilian and Italian roots. "When Kevin asked me to consider playing George, I thought it was cool. I like the twist on it."

In this new treatment, there are references to things more of our time than the 1940s, including the way some businesses have been adversely affected by the Internet. And the film's villain, money-grabbing Mr. Potter, gets a bit of a makeover.

"He's almost funny in the movie, he's so evil," McAllister says. "I wanted to express a little more of the humanity of these people, and how the choices they make affect others."

Fans of the movie, and younger people who never saw it, will find it easy to follow the play, Rodrigues says. "It's faithful to the story and it's clear, with just enough of an edge."

ArtsCentric makes a point of teaming up with a charitable organization when it puts on productions. A portion of proceeds from "It's a Wonderful Life" will be used to help the Family Tree's Adopt-A-Family program.

"We are all caught up in commercialism at this time of year," McAllister says, "but the essence of the holidays is family."

"It's a Wonderful Life" will run weekends Dec. 6 to Dec. 15 at the Garland Theater, Garrison Forest School 300 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills. Tickets are $20 to $25. Call 410-504-5398, or go to artscentric.net.

tim.smith@baltsun.com