A Wonderful Life

by David A. Rosenberg

Up in East Haddam, Goodspeed presents a moving, well-acted though padded “A Wonderful Life,” based on the beloved Frank Capra Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Joe Raposo’s score is Broadway pop but played as if it were more than that by the indispensable music director Michael Flaherty and his eight-piece orchestra. Combine the music with Sheldon Harnick’s accessible lyrics and book and you have the makings of a cheerful holiday show.

Trouble is it doesn’t kick in until act two. The first half is not just stuffed with exposition -- that’s to be expected -- but wastes a lot of time with extraneous material that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. A high school Charleston sequence, for instance, looks like a scrubbed-up, dumbed-down version of the mambo scene in “West Side Story,” without the drama.

Surely you remember the story. Small-town guy George Bailey would like to travel before studying architecture at Cornell. But his father’s death forces him to take over the family’s Building and Loan Association, allowing brother Henry to fulfill George’s dreams.

Generous to a fault, George bankrolls the town’s needy, to the chagrin of evil capitalist banker, Henry Potter. Becoming destitute and depressed, George contemplates suicide. Enter his guardian angel, Clarence, not the kindly grandfatherly Clarence of the movie version, but an awkward and nerdy savior,┬áprompting a truly dippy number, “Wings,” in which Clarence fantasizes about becoming an Angel First-Class.

Speaking of first-class, Potter’s devilish “First Class All the Way” song is one of the score’s highlights. Much else sounds generic, pleasant enough but familiar. Yet there are goodies: “One of the Lucky Ones,” “Not What I Expected” and George’s soliloquy, the powerful “Precious Little.”

In the James Stewart role, Duke Lafoon is commanding. His voice soars, his acting is complex and his own, not copying Stewart. By turns warm and angry, triumphant in defeat, Lafoon is matched by Michael Medeiros’ compelling Uncle Billy, Ed Dixon ‘s superb Potter and Kirsten Scott’s hardy, loyal Mary Bailey, George’s wife.

Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are snazzy but Brian Prather’s scenic designs are not and Parker Esse’s choreography is energetic, at best. Director Michael Perlman goes for a cinematic approach which becomes simply busy and collapses in re-creating the sequence where Clarence shows George what life in the town would have been without him.

If you go, don’t expect the film’s scope. Yet, this stage version is touching and absorbing in its own right, once it concentrates on George and his troubles. As Duke Lafoon’s George wrestles with his demons, we can’t help but feel he’s “first class all the way,” even if the show goes part-way only.

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