The message remains clear: each of us has a purpose, and our lives are wonderful.
The 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life used to be in constant rotation on television at this time of year, and if you were like me, you ended up watching so many clips of it that by the time Christmas rolled around, you'd seen nearly the entire film, only out of order. That's exactly how the Children's Theater of Madison production of A Wonderful Life -- a musical based on the beloved movie -- feels: a little mixed up.
The large cast is well-rehearsed, enthusiastic and professional. As George Bailey, Scott Haden avoids direct imitation of Jimmy Stewart and makes the character feel a little more modern, more relatable. Madison's Stuart Brooks brings magic to the show as angel Matthew. He calmly mentors bumbling Clarence (Michael Herold), the angel on a mission to save struggling George and earn his wings.
It's impossible not to make mention of the abundance of talented young people that round out the cast. Without exception, every one of the school-aged actors is a vibrant addition to the stage. While they mostly play small parts and make up the ensemble, the show would not be the same without these local kids. The Charleston dance competition shows off their talent and energy -- it's a highlight of the show.
Unfortunately, the talented cast is pulled down by a so-so script and music that isn't memorable except for a few bad rhymes. I mean, was lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) so desperate for rhymes that he paired "I feel...complete with you" with "I'm always finding money in the street with you"? Even the titles of the songs seem uninspired: "Can You Find Me a House?" You're not likely to walk out of A Wonderful Life with a song stuck in your head.
The script feels abrupt at times -- certainly, portions of the story had to be cut to make room for the numerous songs. The "Unborn Sequence" in the second act is a super-quick look at what the world would have been like without George in it. I've always thought of this as the most important part of the film, but in the musical, it's a rapid scene that feels added on. This is just one example of how A Wonderful Life is missing some of the dark mystery of the film.
Still, the heart of the movie can be found in A Wonderful Life. The message remains clear: each of us has a purpose, and our lives are wonderful -- even when they don't seem that way.
On opening night at the Overture Center's Capitol Theater, the house was filled with families enjoying a moment of togetherness before the craziness of the holiday season peaks. This is what living a wonderful life is all about, isn't it? So while die-hard fans of the film version may feel a little let down, A Wonderful Life is sure to delight many folks this season with its holiday spirit and redemptive message.