Not a Wonderful Choice: Goodspeed Musical's A Wonderful Life

By Brooks Appelbaum

A Wonderful Life, playing at Goodspeed Musicals through November 29, originates from a misguided premise: the idea that an iconic and -- crucially -- cinematic film could be made into a successful stage musical. It’s a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra masterpiece on which A Wonderful Life is based, certainly has elements of realistic comedy/drama, and these could possibly be transposed to the stage. But the cinematic centerpiece that anchors the plot (Guardian Angel Clarence showing a despairing George Bailey what his town would be like had he never been born) could only fully succeed on film.

Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo (music) spent ten years creating A Wonderful Life, but the film’s sheer stature further dooms the musical version, since comparisons are unavoidable. Harnick is certainly a genius in his own right (his credits include Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, Tenderloin, and Fiorello). But he hasn’t come close to capturing either the story’s gritty high stakes or its redemptive moments. A Wonderful Life contains so much froth that the serious dramatic arc is all but lost. And Joe Raposo’s music, with few exceptions, tends towards the cliched and the forgettable. Ultimately, this attempt to transform the alchemy of Frank Capra’s direction and James Stewart’s performance into something fresh appears as foolish as...well...trying to “lasso the moon.”

Director Michael Perlman can only stage the script he has been handed, so he can do little to improve the show. The first act, in particular, contains numerous numbers that neither advance the plot nor develop the characters. One lovely song that stands out as doing both, however, is “One of the Lucky Ones,” in which George Bailey’s father Tom (George McDaniel), actually makes the Savings and Loan business, and the providing of affordable homes, sound like a religious calling, albeit appropriately homespun. McDaniel also plays the Angel Matthew (who sends Clarence down to save George) and several smaller parts, gives one of the evening’s strongest performances, no matter his role.

Duke Lafoon, as George, has a strong but un-showy voice, just right for his character. And Perlman has wisely guided him away from any attempt at playing Jimmie Stewart. After Lafoon stops trying to convey young George by relying on the outsized gestures of musical comedy, he succeeds in giving us the adult George, by turns earnest and tormented, who, for the most part, commands our belief. The fact that George is never allowed to appear truly tortured and suicidal is, once again, the fault of this script.

As Mary, Kirsten Scott looks lovely and evokes this young woman’s resilience, but no actress could fully capture the playful intelligence or warmth the roles deserves in the relatively few scenes Mary is given. One number, though, allows Scott the full range of her acting and singing skill: the sweetly touching “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You.”

Guardian Angel Clarence (Frank Vlastnik) has been completely re-conceived as a sad-sack clown, so focused on getting his wings that he demonstrates relatively little concern for George. The script, not Vlastnik, has all but ruined this key character.

Ed Dixon gives us a strong-voiced and thoroughly evil Mr. Potter. But virtually stealing the show is Michael Medeiros as Uncle Billy. Here we see the twinkle, then the dramatic weight, and, in the penultimate scenes, the full darkness that ultimately bring one close to tears. Whenever Medeiros appeared, I felt I was watching a strong, well-written play. I only wished that Medeiros could have far more stage time.

Though the big dance numbers interrupt the story, the singer/dancers are, as usual, terrific, with strong choreography by Parker Esse. The scenic, costume, and lighting designs are all on the bright side (Brian Prather, Jennifer Caprio, and Scott Bolman, respectively) until we get to the last scenes of life without George Bailey. Michael O’Flaherty’s music direction, after the orchestra quiets down a bit, supports the actors nicely.

Do try to catch Michael Medeiros in any production you can. As for A Wonderful Life: choose a cozy night, build up the fire, sip the drink of your choice, and watch the movie.

“A Wonderful Life” runs through November 29. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org

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