An Almost Wonderful Life

By Geary Danihy

Have you ever seen Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life? I guess that’s like asking, are you breathing? For most, if not all of us, the film is implanted in our minds, so what would you do if someone pitched the idea of turning the iconic film into a musical? Well, if you’re Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo (music), you say, “Great idea. Let’s do it.” And the result is what’s currently playing at Goodspeed Musicals. The run has been extended through December 6, so the ticket-buying public is happy, and there’s really no reason not to be happy, save that A Wonderful Life, as directed by Michael Perlman, simply is not up to Goodspeed’s standards. It induces smiles and generates a warm if somewhat dim glow, but as musicals go, it’s somewhat lackluster.

Okay, we all know about good-hearted George Bailey (Duke Lafoon), the man who sets aside his dreams to save the Building and Loan Association in Bedford Falls, and Mary (Kirsten Hatch), the girl he falls in love with, and Clarence (Frank Vlastnik), the angel second-class who is assigned to show George just how important his life has been and, in the process, hopefully win his wings. And we all know...well, we all know -- so much so that when Harnick deviates from the original story for dramatic or staging reasons there’s a little bell that goes off in our minds and we say, “Wait a minute, didn’t George...?”

But let’s start with the set, designed by Brian Prather. Yes, Goodspeed has limited fly and wing space, but that has never stopped the venerable venue from coming up with some interesting and creative solutions to set design. This time around, we have a single set (with some stage pieces rolled in and out as necessary) that reminded at least one audience member of a depressed New England mill town. It’s dark, dingy, drab and sad, as is the poor Christmas tree that Mary decorates near the end of the second act. Misshapen and under-decorated, it looks like something Scrooge might have settled for before his epiphany. Bah! Humbug!

Then there’s Raposo’s music, which seems to have been composed when he was in his “blue” period. Serviceable at best, the songs don’t linger in your mind for a moment longer than it takes for their last notes to fade away. You certainly don’t leave the theater humming a happy tune. As for the choreography, which has always been a hallmark of a Goodspeed production, Parker Esse seems to have taken his cue from Prather, for the less than dynamic dance numbers are in sync with the drab set. Yes, there’s coordinated movement, but only the Charleston scene (“In a State”) generates any energy or excitement.

Is this sour grapes because the musical is not the movie? No, not really. I was more than willing to accept and embrace the production on its own terms. It’s just that this time around Goodspeed seems to have missed the mark, though the somewhat flat effort cannot be laid at the feet of the superb cast. Lafoon, to his credit, doesn’t try to fend himself off as Jimmy Stewart -- he is his own George Bailey, and is quite believable as the idealistic young man who reluctantly falls in love -- it’s a touching scene, helped by the pert Scott, who easily gives us the essence of the wholesome young woman who deserves George’s love.

What about the man everyone loves to hate? That’s Henry Potter, and Ed Dixon is the epitome of the grasping, conniving businessman, weaving a Mephistophlean web in “First Class All the Way.” And our angel second-class? Vlastnik is as meek, mild and earnest as you might wish him to be. And the somewhat forgetful Uncle Billy? Michael Medeiros is dead-on as the somewhat whiskey-challenged relative who somehow manages to lose the bank deposit (we all know who’s behind that -- Potter! -- Hiss! Hiss!) that puts dear George in jeopardy and leads to the heartfelt conclusion.

Back to the set. When George decides it would have been better if he had never been born and Clarence sets about to show him the world as it might have been without his presence, the soul-deadening nature of “Potterville” has little impact, primarily because Bedford Falls was pretty drab and depressing to begin with. Thus, the dark night of the soul scenes just don’t seem very dark -- heck, we’ve been there almost from the start.

There are flickers of what might have been (i.e., Wonderful Life fully re-imagined), especially in the “Wings” scene that opens the second act. It’s a Busby Berkley-style number that captures Clarence’s desire to soar amongst the angels. It’s a bright moment in an otherwise dark production that quite often trades on the audience’s memory of the emotions generated by the Capra film to legitimize itself.

I come back, finally, to the Christmas tree. In the final crowd-gathered scene when goodness is celebrated in an ensemble number (“Christmas Gifts”), one might expect the sad little tree to get into the spirit of the moment and turn itself into something Rockefeller Center might be proud of. Alas, the fake fir just doesn’t seem to understand the theatricality of the moment. There it stands in all of its slumped shabbiness. A missed moment, as is much of A Wonderful Life.

A Wonderful Life runs through December 6. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.


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