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Theater review

Laurel Mill Playhouse production proves 'It's a Wonderful Life'

By Patti Restivo

11:57 AM EST, December 18, 2013

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'Tis the season to revisit sentimental stories, and the Laurel Mill Playhouse may be earning its wings in a faithful rendition of "It's A Wonderful Life." The 1946 film, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, remains one of the most beloved American classics, and adaptations to television, radio and stage pop up frequently about this time every year.

Veteran director Michael V. Hartsfield, of Laurel, chose a fresh adaptation for the Playhouse's revival of the traditional holiday story. Written in 2006, "It's A Wonderful Life, the Radio Play" by Philip Grecian, and produced here by Laurel resident Maureen Rogers, easily captures all the familiar heartwarming moments, and then some.

The action takes place in the studio of the WLMP radio station in the 1940s. The cast portrays voice actors performing "It's A Wonderful Life" between commercials. Penny Martin composed and directed delightful jingles and skits to advertise LMP's small business sponsors — Cork 'N Bottle Liquors, Minuteman Press, Red Hot & Blue, Salute Ristorante Italiano, Sean Patrick's Pet Spa and Wild Buffalo Grill — that have ads printed in the playbill.

The plot assumes that the success of a radio show relies solely on dialogue, music and sound effects. From this perspective, Hartsfield brilliantly crosses age and gender boundaries in his casting.

Most cast members play multiple characters, opening all sorts of opportunities to tease everyone's imagination. Of course, the Playhouse audience can see the performers, and Hartsfield's actors obviously relish playing parts that would normally be out of their range, creating some very fun dynamics.

James Raymond, of Laurel, conceived and built an impressive set that could be the subject of a Christmas card photo. Aesthetic and functional, the sound booth makes a very successful design element. Costumes by Rogers and the cast work beautifully, and the sound design team, comprised of David McCrary, Raymond, Patrick Pase (who also performs on piano), Martin and Hartsfield, together with pianist Lynn Reggia, add their "voices" to make the illusion feel real.

Nostalgic and warm, the energy created by Hartsfield's ensemble production epitomizes the holiday spirit. Although some of the acting was uneven and the pace was a little capricious on opening night, "It's A Wonderful Life, the Radio Play" at Laurel Mill Playhouse overflows with passion and joy.

All of the acting is admirable, and much of it is exceptional.

For instance, Joseph Mariano delivers an outstanding George Bailey. Patrons may be lured by the passion in his voice to close their eyes and imagine listening to the show on the radio, but it would be a shame to miss his facial expressions. Mariano and Joanna Cross (as Mary Hatch-Bailey) both bring lovely vocal tones to the stage (in dialogue and song) and are a pleasure to watch together.

Standout performances are too numerous to mention all, but David Hale as Clarence shines every time he appears. Particularly compelling performances are also presented by Kirk Palchefsky, of Laurel, as the greedy Henry Potter; Mark T. Allen and Jennifer Grundy Hollet as small-town folk Mr. and Mrs. Bailey; Martin as George's friends Bert and Ernie; Doug Silverman as Mr. Gower and the ill-fated Uncle Billy; Raymond as sound tech; and Lori Bruun as Aunt Tilly and Violet Bick. And young Rebekah Pase consistently delivers show-stopping moments, particularly in the Sean Patrick's Pet Spa ad.

Other cast members who live in Laurel include Sarah Criscuolo, La'Angel Hall, Mary Kilgallon, Rachel Kilgallon, Selah Thom Luci Mbanaja and Munro Meyersburg.

 "It's A Wonderful Life, the Radio Play" continues through Sunday, Jan. 5 with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 8 p.m., and one remaining matinee performance Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $15. Students 18 and under and seniors 65 and over pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.