Up for a new holiday treat - something you've never seen before? OK, I've got it:
It's a Wonderful Life.
That old chestnut, roasted yearly on an open fire? Have I been nipping, along with Jack Frost?
No, I'm sober and serious. Frank Capra's inspirational 1946 classic starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore - one of the American Film Institute's 100 best movies - is being done at the Prince Music Theater in a way you've never seen it: as a live radio production.
Playwright Joe Landry's idea - to tell the story within a performance that captures the feel of classic radio - is as straight-arrow sensible as the movie's main character, George Bailey, owner of the building and loan association in the tiny town of Bedford Falls.
Landry sets the show in a Philadelphia radio studio, days before the release of the film. There, five radio singer/actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist dramatize the forthcoming movie in a national broadcast of the station's drama show, complete with breakaway jingles for Wanamakers and Tastykake.
It's altogether believable, given radio's place in American culture at the time and Barry McNabb's attention to detail in his direction of the show.
The best things about the movie - its focus on the high points of the life of its protagonist, its aw-shucks response to life's twists, its unwavering celebration of one person's power to unravel the status quo - remain the best things about the play. Add a cast that portrays radio actors as if they
radio actors (and that includes well-established Philadelphia theater artists) and you get
It's a Wonderful Life
seen through another filter than Capra's.
The actors change voices to become different characters in a instant. They deliver the play with scripts on music stands (though they refer to them only for effect, it seems), on a stage backed by a red curtain and accessorized in the utilitarian manner of a studio.
Jeff Lorenz, in a lab coat, performs the sound effects, and Collin Maier accompanies the action on piano - yes, there's plenty of action, in an old-fashioned radio way. The cast performs holiday standards in the local "airtime" before the national broadcast begins.
The production is richly detailed, down to the beautiful eight-button vest that Pete Pryor, playing George, wears to the studio. Check out all of Maxine Johnson's handsome period costumes - and the hairdos of the two women, played by Rachel Brennan and Jennifer Page. (One wears a snood, a net that clutches a perfect roll of hair around her head.)
Tom McCarthy plays the guardian angel, Clarence, who rescues George from suicide on Christmas Eve, after the family building and loan association falls into crisis; Jered McLenigan, deft in many roles, is Potter, the greedy incarnation of evil.
It's a Wonderful Life
asserts that we thrive on human connection, and these performers make the point by the example of their ensemble acting. The "applause" sign on the stage's set guarantees them an enthusiastic response. They'd have elicited it, in any case.