It’s a Wonderful (musical) Life at Goodspeed

By Amy J. Barry

It could almost be a paid for endorsement by the Bernie Sanders campaign: small, struggling citizens up against big heartless bankers. That’s how much things stay the same -- at least since 1946 when the Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life first hit movie theaters -- a classic that continues to air on TV every holiday season to remind us of the “true” meaning of Christmas.

The Goodspeed production re-imagines the story of the good banker, George Bailey, who gives up his dreams of college and travel to keep his family-owned savings & loan afloat, and do right by the citizens of Bedford Falls, while the evil banker, Henry Potter, tries to take him down and make himself richer. When the desperate George tries to take his own life on Christmas Eve, an angel, named Clarence with his own lessons to learn, comes to George’s rescue. In-between there is romance, family dynamics, and the Great Depression.

A lot of us were wondering, how are they going to pull this off as a musical? Even with such top-notch talent as Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo (music)?

Making a musical out of the movie Holiday Inn that premiered at the Goodspeed last fall, wasn’t nearly as much of a challenge. There were already some great Irving Berlin tunes in the show and so it was easy to just add more of his vintage music -- resulting in a lot of recognizable, snappy songs.

In this case, the music is all new, so there’s no recognizable toe-tapping numbers for the audience to connect with.¬†Although some of the songs, including the theme song, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” could grow on you over time.

On the other hand, other numbers are little more than “sung” lines by the characters that go on too long and don’t serve the story, and would have been more effective as spoken dialogue.

But, the pit orchestra, under Michael O’Flaherty’s creative musical direction comes in at just the right moments using their instruments to punctuate tension, exaggerate humor, set a romantic mood.

It’s probably not a good idea to directly compare the musical with the film because you’ll never be satisfied that the stage version does justice to the movie. Better to judge it on it’s own merits, and it’s own creative interpretation of the story.

The writing, and direction by Michael Perlman, does this well in some instances and not so much in others.

For example, in the smart number, “First Class all the Way,” Mr. Potter, played with panache by Ed Dixon, entices George to sell out and come to work for him for a handsome salary. As Potter describes the “wonderful” life in George’s future, George’s wife Mary illustrates the song’s lyrics via George’s imagination come to life, gliding around the stage in opulent attire, happy and carefree.

One palpably feels George’s inner struggle between taking the money and running or staying true to his principles and his good character. In the movie, this was a much shorter, less riveting scene in which George basically turns Potter down point blank.

Then there is the big Charleston dance contest to the tune “In a State,” and although impressively choreographed by Parker Esse, it feels like a generic Goodspeed over-the-top number and contrasts too sharply with the show’s underlying, darker message.

George, the main character, played by Duke Lafoon, starts out slow and nondescript, but by the second act his dimensionality grows and one can really feel how desperate and trapped he feels. And Lafoon puts his all into a very moving scene toward the end, prior to an overly sappy final scene around the Christmas tree.

Kirsten Scott has a lovely voice, and is a very different Mary than the movie role (played by Donna Reed). Scott appears more independent and self-assured, and yet, even though in the new musical version Mary graduates from college, she has no aspirations for a career. Her only interest is marrying George and being a stay at home mom, despite their huge financial struggles. It’s a puzzling, contradictory role.

Frank Vlastnik is an appropriately funny and quirky Clarence, George’s guardian angel, George McDaniel is well cast as Harry Bailey, the younger brother George selflessly gives up his dreams for; Michael Medeiros is a believable and sympathetic Uncle Billy, whose drinking causes him to misplace $8,000, and ignite the crises that almost ends George’s life.

This is a big cast with many more supporting roles, in addition to the ensemble, and do a good job for the most part with what they have to work with.

The sets by Brian Prather are pretty basic for Goodspeed, but serviceable, and Scott Bolman’s bold, ever changing lighting adds a nice dimension.

Despite its sentimentality, the lesson in A Wonderful Life is still as meaningful as ever, if only to remind us that perception is everything. George needed divine intervention to make him see that focusing only on what he had given up blinded him to all the compassionate, moral choices he had made in his life, and the good people with whom he surrounded himself, which becomes his ultimate reward. And that’s a message one can’t hear too many times.

Performances of A Wonderful Life extended through Dec. 6 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. For times and tickets, call the box office at 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

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