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Back to Bedford Falls at Center Stage in charming 'Wonderful Life' radio play

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Holidays wouldn't be holidays without nostalgia. Center Stage serves up a heaping portion in 'Wonderful Life.'

The holidays wouldn't be holidays without nostalgia. Center Stage lays it on thickly and quite endearingly with "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play."

For fans of the 1946 Frank Capra movie, which emerged as a Christmastime tradition decades after its initial box office failure, Joe Landry’s adaptation provides an opportunity to relive the essence of an old favorite.

The original story is all here. Good old George Bailey gives up a thirst for travel and adventure to become a banker and helps the good, honest, hard-working folk of picture-perfect Bedford Falls.

He struggles repeatedly with conscience-challenged moneybags Mr. Potter and, faced with a crisis of faith and finance, finds himself on the brink of suicide on Christmas Eve. A guardian angel intervenes in the nick of time.

All the characters are portrayed by five actors in this version, which is presented as the kind of dramatization once routinely aired on radio in the not-so-dark ages before television. Landry took his inspiration from the radio play of "It's a Wonderful Life" that aired in 1947 featuring the movie's stars — James Stewart as George, Donna Reed as Mary, the librarian he marries.

People of a certain age or discernment who appreciate the days of classic radio will take extra pleasure in watching the story unfold in a vintage studio environment, complete with a sound effects man to convey each opening and closing of a door, the pouring of liquids, the honking of horns.

And anyone who has never tired of Capra's story about good old American values, or has somehow never been introduced to the charms of "It's a Wonderful Life," should find this version rewarding.

If confined to a confessional, I'd have to admit that the film has always seemed a little too contrived and cloying to me, the performance by Stewart on the gaggy side. So I am, perhaps, more open than some to the idea of experiencing the piece in a fresh context.

And this really does feel quite fresh. Landry has not merely re-created a radio show.

As the actors find themselves deeper and deeper into the plot, they start tossing pages of the script onto the floor and moving away from the microphones. Bit by bit, they become the good and not-so-good town folk, dealing with the little and not-so-little problems of life.

The blurring of lines between the radio studio — in this case identified as WBAL to provide a local hook — and Bedford Falls provides an extra dose of the fanciful to what is already a fanciful tale.

Director Nelson T. Eusebio III ensures that the dual worlds become neatly delineated and nicely fused in the Center Stage production, and he draws from the cast performances that are full of, um, wonderful life.

Joseph McGranaghan does an especially impressive job as George. He has all the homespun quality the part needs, but he never pushes it. There's a naturalness to his lines and gestures, nowhere more affectingly than in the crucial scene when a run on the bank threatens George's future and that of the town.

McGranaghan also gets some real sparks going with Chiara Motley's beautifully nuanced Mary. She makes the character wholesome, but never bland. And she deftly depicts just how hurt Mary is when a distraught George — a whole lot of missing money at the bank causes major stress — takes out his frustrations on his family.

As Clarence, the angel who's one good deed shy of earning his wings, Pun Bandhu likewise keeps things simple, so the humor has extra spark and the sentiment registers warmly. The actor also bounds nimbly through other assignments. Eileen Rivera handles her various roles, including the sexy Violet Bick, with aplomb.

Ken Krugman clearly relishes the part of Mr. Potter, and makes him sound like an evil twin to Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island." The portrayal may get a little too vaudeville-villain hammy here and there, but it hits the spot.

Another duty Krugman vividly fulfills is that of the radio show host, identified here as Freddy Filmore, a fun inside joke for "I Love Lucy" fans. (Speaking of which, everything wrong about "I Love Lucy Live on Stage," a recreation of scripts from the iconic sitcom that recently visited Baltimore, is right in "It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," down to the commercials.)

It's greedy, I know, to wish that the actors could produce a more virtuosic range of voices to go with all those characters; there isn't much difference between some of them. But, physically (something a radio would not have appreciated), the performers are very adept at conjuring up distinct personalities.

Anthony Stultz is the one-man sound machine, delivering every sound effect with perfect timing and also providing some musical accompaniment (his piano background music could be more in tune, stylistically, with the time period).

The actors have been given a fine environment, thanks to Michael Locher's evocative set and Alixandra Gage Englund's spot-on costumes, expressively lit by Burke Brown.

Capra's believe-in-yourself-and-think-of-your-neighbors message still retains its power, particularly at holiday time. This clever play lets that message sink in gently amid the fascinating mechanics of the venerable medium of radio, and Center Stage's disarming production gives the material a stylish airing.

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If you go

"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" runs through Dec. 21 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $69. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

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