Stage adaptations of It's a Wonderful Life have been proliferating, and though no one version dominates, Joe Landry's at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope feels more viable than many: It rightly emerges as a fanfare for the common man, even if it's lighter than lightweight.
Subtitled A Live Radio Play, the Landry script doesn't try to stage the original small-town setting. It's set at a 1940s radio studio, where the story is being acted out for microphones, the six-member cast playing a variety of roles that, through the considerable power of suggestion, make the stage feel far more populated than it is. In 1940s radio style, the actors give highly inflected line readings, supported by a sound effects.
Anyone who feels shortchanged won't for long. The elements that made radio drama work in the 1940s have retained their power. Soon, you no longer feel the characters are outside you. They're all but in your head, having a subtle dialogue with your own holiday history.
As the story's hero, George Bailey, is about to jump off a bridge - having realized he's worth more money dead than alive - is it a problem if his plan seems like a remarkably expedient (if extreme) solution to his complicated business problems? Not necessarily.
George gives up his grand career ambitions to stay in small-town America to run a savings-and-loan alternative to his draconian counterpart, Henry Potter - and you're right with him as he stops at nothing to save his business for the good of the town. Even if it means ending his own life.
Such a feat is possible because the actors play the whole thing as a matter of life and death, with old-radio campiness held at bay by director Gordon Greenberg. No surprise that the actors all have first-cast Broadway credits, including Doylestown-raised American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini as George; lovely Jill Paice as his wife; Kevin Pariseau as the evil Potter; and, most virtuosically, Lauren Milina playing various tarts as well as the cello.
The script isn't uniformly successful. George's guardian angel seems one-dimensionally obsessed with earning his wings. The film's panorama of Potterville - the toxic city that would have evolved had George never lived - isn't captured by Landry's words. But by that point in the show, you're either hooked or you're not, and the Saturday matinee audience was hooked indeed.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Through Dec. 30 at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope.
Tickets: $29 to $54.
Information: 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.EndText