The day after 20 first graders and six adults were murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, you'd have had a hard time convincing me anything was wonderful. The combination of the mass execution, the fiscal cliff, the Mayan Doomsday, and, heck, even the Eagles, has made this a pretty heavy holiday season. But refuge awaited inside a legendary local theater where a classic show was being offered as a timeless salve for society's woes.
The stage lights are back on inside the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, which, since 1939, has showcased the talents of such stars as Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Walter Matthau, and Helen Hayes. After some lean years and financial difficulties caused the theater to go dark, the refurbished Playhouse is under the direction of producing director Jed Bernstein and is featuring Justin Guarini in It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry. The play, running through next Sunday, also stars Garth Kravits, Lauren Molina, Jill Paice, Kevin Pariseau, and Mark Price.
Sure, we all know what happens to the idealistic George Bailey on a fateful Christmas Eve, but chances are you've never seen it performed as a 1940s live radio broadcast in front of a studio audience. For Guarini, the opportunity to play Bailey in a radio play fulfilled a childhood fascination.
"When I was younger I had trouble sleeping. I would go to bed and ... my mind would just be going and my parents got me for Christmas one year this 'Golden Age of Radio' tapes," he told me last week. "I would listen to George Burns and Gracie Allen, Abbott and Costello, the Jack Benny show, and it was so amazing because I realized how people would go, sit in a big studio, and watch people stand in front of a microphone and do this comedy half-hour, and would see the people live making the sound effects at the Foley table."
The table is a tribute to Jack Donovan Foley, a Universal Studios employee who pioneered the creation of live sound effects for what were originally "silent" films.
In the Playhouse production, the stage is in constant motion as a cast of six brings to life more than two dozen characters. Five microphones are featured center stage, plus a piano (which all the actors play) and the Foley table at stage right.
"Foley itself is an art," observed Guarini. "It used to be that in movies, you didn't have the sort of fancy, computerized, 'Oh, I'm going to go out and record a glass breaking,' and then you bring it into the studio and you just hit play. So, instead, they had a table and they had all of the sound effects that they were going to have.
"If there was a car in the radio broadcast, for us, we have a small fan that when you turn it on it sounds like a car idling. And then you have an old horn. And so people understand, 'Oh, that's a car coming.' If there are footsteps in the snow, there's a little baking tin of cornflakes with a napkin over top of them and all you have to do is knead it with your hands and it sounds like crunching footsteps in snow.
"The table has a sort of mark tree, which is a bunch of house keys all strung together like wind chimes. Play them back and forth and that is our sort of signal for a heavenly scene."
My 12-year-old struggled with the concept of our attending a radio play. He was convinced it meant we'd be sitting in pitch darkness, seeing nothing and listening to distant voices. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Guarini calls the ensuing two-hour performance a form of "choreographed ballet."
"We're running around and we're doing things, and we have to make sure we're up at the mic for when our characters are on, and then we're back playing piano or back playing guitar or playing the drums."
Of course, the message of It's a Wonderful Life is as timeless as the production values in the Bucks County Playhouse's adaptation. Like the 1946 Frank Capra movie classic, the emotional peak comes at the end when Medal of Honor recipient Harry Bailey (who was saved as a boy from drowning by his brother, thereby enabling him to one day save the sailors onboard a transport ship), toasts George as "the richest man in town." Guarini told me that no matter how many times he's seen the movie or played the part, the message still resonates with him.
"With things going on in our economy, with things like what has happened [in Connecticut], no matter what happens to you, all the horrible things that go on, all the sacrifices you have to make on a daily basis, that as long as you remember the love you have in your life, the people who are there supporting you, and the fact that really it truly is, if you look at it, It's a Wonderful Life, then you're all right. And it's the redemption of that scene and the fact that all the sacrifices that George made for his family, for his town, really come back to him tenfold."
You'd think that performing in front of sold-out crowds of 400 in New Hope would be serene for an American Idol first runner-up (to Kelly Clarkson) who has performed live on television in front of tens of millions, but he says that's not so.
"I will hang it up the day when I'm not rattled, when I'm not a little nervous, because it just shows that I care and I really want to put on the best performance."