The Bailey family sings around the piano. They were an adorable onstage family. Picture by: Mark Philbrick
Reviewed By Megan Graves*
Before I went to see this musical adaptation of Frank Capra’s timeless classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I was curious yet skeptical about how this stage version would compare to the movie, but the SCERA cast and crew were able to adapt this iconic moralistic story into a stage musical with style and humor. While nothing can replace the classic character portrayals of the movie we know and love, I appreciated the creativity and richness that the new song and dance numbers add to the characters’ story. Most of the popular lines and scenes from the movie are still in the script, cleverly interspersed with songs that bring out even more emotion and depth to the characters. Not only that, they involve the audience in the story at times and make use of the theater space in creative ways. For example, when George Bailey and and Mary Hatch (played excellently by Matthew Nelson and Natalie Merrill) throw rocks at the Old Granville House and make their wishes – one of my all-time favorite scenes, they threw over the audience. It made me feel more like I was a part of the play. Don’t worry… it’s pretend so you don’t have to duck.
I loved some of the changes to the story that the playwright made, such as adding the new silly character Aunt Tilly (Lucy Bradford), who is married to Uncle Billy (Christopher Bradford) on stage and in real life! These two played off each other extremely well, made us laugh more than once, and had a lovely dancing duet. Other pleasant additions to the script were Ma Bailey’s song, Clarence the “second-class angel’s” song, and Violet’s tap dance number, one because you don’t expect those characters to have solos, and also because it brought more depth and feeling to their characters’ stories. Respectively, Deborah Bowman and Star Hall both had excellent voices and stage presence while they sang, and Alyssa Orme impressively sang and tap danced at the same time.
Honestly, my favorite part of the show was watching the supporting cast. They had incredible energy and talent. Most of the cast was actively engaged and interested in what was happening on stage, and Ernie (David Layton) and Mr. Gower (Steve Whitehead) were extremely fun to watch in this regard. MariLee Boekweg made us laugh more than once as the stoic bank examiner, amazingly actually because of her lack of emotion during emotionally-charged scenes. In the pivotal scene between young George (Kimball Bradford) and Mr. Gower, when George cries with him about his son dying in the war – well, I cried with them. That scene makes me cry every time in the movie, but it was even more poignant seeing it on stage.
Mr. Potter is one of the most well-known villains in movie history. The adaptation of his character, portrayed excellently by Eric Glissmeyer, was one of the biggest surprises of the musical. Even though he was in a wheelchair, he moved commandingly across the stage as he sang, weaving a powerful performance as a conniving spider of a man, and convincing the audience of his villainous tendencies with a voice that rang like thunder at times.
One of my favorite aspects of this production was how the cast cleverly interacted with the piano player (Andrew Walsh) on stage. Throughout the play, they wheeled him back and forth, sat on the piano bench with him, or spun the piano around the stage while he was playing, and yet he played along seamlessly and charismatically the entire time. It was seriously impressive. Way to go, Andrew!
I find it incredible how many children are involved in the SCERA’s productions, especially this one. The huge children’s chorus was a joy to see and hear (kudos to directors Martha Glissmeyer and Michael Carrasco for this as well), and the tremendous involvement by entire families on and off stage in this musical in particular is almost as equally heartwarming as the story itself.
One joy of live theater that is particularly rewarding is to see the artistic choices made by the set, costume, and lighting designers. One risk of live theater is for something to go wrong with any of those technical aspects as well as the sound. I’m pleased to report that I didn’t even think about the sound and backstage crew until writing this review, which means, in other words, that Danielle Berry the Stage Manager and Kendall Bowman the Audio Engineer did a stellar job. There was a roof that didn’t connect to the Bailey’s house on stage, which I wasn’t sure was intentional or not, and they didn’t have a sign indicating the Bailey house had been changed to a boarding house in one of the more significant scenes, so that was a little confusing, but those were minor details. What I did love was the deliberate choice of costuming colors – matching George Bailey’s and Clarence’s suit colors, for example, and their gray tones matching the gray of the regal arched stone facade in the background (great job Deborah Bowman on costumes and Nat Reed on set). The lighting design by Elizabeth Griffiths – with the changes from sunset to night, etc., were a beautiful contrast to the stone pillars and stark stairs on the set.
With this kind of play – an adaptation from an iconic classic movie – it’s hard to leave everyone in the audience happy, because people are so familiar with the show that if something is changed or left out, people could be disappointed. It’s the job of both the playwright and director to keep the essential points of the story and not gloss over them. This is even trickier with a musical because there are songs that add to the length of the show, so some parts from the movie have to be cut. Knowing this, I was very impressed with how the play was written and performed by this cast.
However, just as a warning for you “It’s a Wonderful Life” aficionados, regarding changes to the script that you might not enjoy, I was particularly disappointed in the almost non-existence of the dancing pool scene, one of my favorites, so don’t expect much from that scene, and I was surprised at some inconsistencies, omissions, and changes to the original story which didn’t seem to make sense (and are the fault of the playwright’s choice), such as George not finding Zuzu’s petals in his pocket to show that he was alive again after he had a change of heart, or him praying to God after he gets punched in the face instead of beforehand, which is one of the more ironic, poignant parts of his decline to almost suicide. Basically, don’t expect it to be the exact story with the exact favorite songs or parts that you are accustomed to seeing or maybe have even memorized, like myself. However, despite the script being different than the hollywood production, you’ll find yourself delighted with the SCERA’s clever musical rendition of this classic story.
One thing you might like about the indoor SCERA theater that makes it unique is how family-friendly and date-friendly the theater is. If you’re bringing that someone special, you can buy tickets to the love seats they have in the theater and make it a more memorable night. Also if you need to take a restless or crying child out of the hall but still want to watch, they have a crying room where you can still see and hear the show. They also have booster seats that kids can sit on in order to see the stage better. What I didn’t like was that I felt like I needed a booster seat to see the stage adequately without someone’s head in the way, and I’m not that short. I even did try a booster seat, but unfortunately, they are not made for adults.
Performance Details For When You Go:
It’s a Wonderful Life plays every night except Sundays and Tuesdays at 7:30 PM at the SCERA Center for the Arts (745 S. State Street, Orem). Tickets are $10-12. More information about the musical can be found at: https://www.scera.org/events/its-a-wonderful-life-the-musical/
*Megan Graves has directed, produced, written, and performed in various community plays in Utah (http://www.singforsomething.org/), and also enjoys being a freelance arts critic. She majored in both English and Music Teaching because she couldn’t pick just one, and has a Master’s in Public Administration. She particularly loves watching and performing in Shakespeare plays and in musicals, and is grateful for the chance she had to study and critique theatrical performances in London for 7 weeks in an undergrad theater program at BYU as part of her English major.