From left: Paul Urbanski, Stephen Deming and Rebecca Greenberg.
Everyone has favorite holiday traditions harking back to their childhoods — from trudging through snow with family to cut down a Christmas tree, to decorating sugar cookies, to visiting Santa Claus at the mall. For me, it’s revisiting the classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life. I love the story of George Bailey, a man of grand ambitions and haunting disappointments, who realizes (with the help of his guardian angel) that he made an enormous impact on the lives of everyone in his hometown of Bedford Falls.
During much of my adolescence, the black-and-white film was broadcast on local TV stations in a continuous loop for the entire month of December. Since then, I’ve seen special editions, the colorized version and a musical adaptation of the box office dud that gained a devoted following decades after it was released. But I’ve never seen a production that captured the spirit, the drama and the joy of the 1946 movie better than University Theatre’s radio drama, playing in the Mitchell Theatre through Dec. 11.
Directed by Jim Stauffer, this delightful adaptation includes all the key scenes from the classic film. It also includes many other carefully wrought moments that pay tribute to the time-period, the art form of the radio play and the actors who used only their voices and clever sound effects to bring a fully realized story to listeners gathered around their radios.
Set in the WHA radio studios of the 1940s, the drama was actually recorded for rebroadcast by Wisconsin Public Radio on opening night, Dec. 2. Introduced by Norman Gilliland, the host of WPR’s Old Time Radio Show, the performance took on an extra dimension when the audience members realized that our reactions would also be part of the show that was sent across the airwaves. (To listen to the performance, visit wpr.org/programs/old-time-radio-drama.)
As George and Mary Bailey, Paul Urbanski and Rebecca Greenberg are clear eyed and unsentimental, hitting all the right notes as they dramatize scenes from the main characters’ childhoods, courtship and marriage. Neither attempt impressions of the actors that immortalized their roles; instead, they bring their own youthful energy to the parts.
Stephen Deming, Sam Wood, Kyle Wessel and Andrea Watkins take on the challenge of playing the other three dozen roles in the story, changing their voices slightly for each character shift. This results in several comical moments when one actor actually interacts with himself. Wood’s portrayal of Clarence the angel is a stand out in this production, made more endearing by the fact that the vertically challenged actor stands on a wooden soda box in order to reach the microphone.
Part of the fun of watching a radio play is seeing how all the sound effects are made. So for this production, two “Foley artists” (Isabel Coff and Kai-Yu “Ike” Yen) are set up on stage, playing chimes, ringing bells, clinking glasses, splashing around in a bucket of water, “walking” shoes across a wooden platform, opening and closing doors and squeezing a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes whenever one of the characters is supposed to be walking in the snow. Their timing is impeccably coordinated with the actors, who mime the actions while holding scripts and huddling around microphone stands. An organist (Christian Stevenson) provides live accompaniment during and between scenes.
The radio drama also includes comical commercials for hair tonic and soap, with silly jingles sung to the tune of Christmas carols. Together with the Art Deco touches on the set, beautifully designed by Shuxing Fan, and period costumes by Lola Bao, the entire evening evokes 1940s glamour.
As theater professor David Furumoto notes in the program, “This year, perhaps more than ever, this story of how one person’s life does matter, how good will towards our fellow beings can overcome the forces of greed, how our individual actions can be a source of help to others far beyond our knowing, resonates strongly.”
This production captures the magic of the holidays with a timely message wrapped in a big red bow, a classic story embraced by a new generation and a new experience with old media. (Cue bell ringing, because Clarence finally gets his wings.)