Holy Zuzu’s petals! Get into the spirit with Wonderful Life

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The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play includes (from left) Patrick Kelly Jones as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, Carrie Paff as Lana Sherwood, Michael Gene Sullivan as Freddie Filmore and Gabriel Marin as Jake Laurents. Below: Marin’s Jake gets into character as Bedford Falls’ favorite son, George Bailey. Photos by Ed Smith

At a certain point, no matter how much you love Dickens or get your heart cockles warmed by Scrooge and Tiny Tim, you’ve had it. Enough already with A Christmas Carol. Some years you just need to take a Carol break and find a little holiday spark elsewhere.

This year, if you’re searching for an alternative to Ebenezer and his ghosts, I recommend you head to Marin Theatre Company and spend some time with George Bailey and Clarence, his Angel Second Class. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play takes Frank Capra’s much loved 1946 film and turns it into a stage experience by transforming it into a radio play. As re-conceived by Joe Landry, we’re in a Manhattan radio station on a snowy Christmas Eve as five actors play all the roles and create all the sound effects for a streamlined version of Capra’s story (which itself is based on a short story, Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift”).

This is a smart approach because it relieves the stage production from having to compete with indelible images from Capra’s movie and allows us the extreme pleasure of settling in and being told a good Christmas story enlivened by a quintet of vibrant performers.

Director Jon Tracy marshals a lot of good energy to keep things from veering into the corny, both within the story itself and within the 1940s context of the radio show, where we get flashes of the “actor” characters who are portraying the characters within the story. Thankfully, there’s not a lot of time spent developing the actors beyond their basic personae. We hear what movie, radio or TV shows they’re most famous for, and that’s about it. This keeps the focus on the “Playhouse of the Air” production of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Landry’s adaptation of the screenplay (by Capra, Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling and Albert Hackett, with reported “polish” by Dorothy Parker) keeps all the basic details and the framework: beleaguered George Bailey (Gabriel Marin) has had enough of his dreams being killed by small-town life. His ongoing fight to keep his family’s building and loan business afloat has finally crashed (thanks a lot for nothing, Uncle Billy), and so has any semblance of George’s faith and hope in life, wonderful or otherwise.

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As townspeople pray for George, the angels we have heard of (on high) take note and make moves to do something about it. An angel who has yet to achieve his wings, one Clarence Odbody (Patrick Kelly Jones) is given an overview of George’s life (also known as Act 1) and then sent down to prevent George from killing himself and then showing himself what the world would be like if he had never been born.

It takes a good long while for the set-up to result in some action, but once George gains a new perspective on the life he has led and the work he has done, It’s a Wonderful Life becomes a mash-up of A Christmas Carol and Our Town. We have supernatural forces intervening in a human life, offering an alternative view of that life and leading to redemption and a new-found appreciation for the intrinsic value of human life – every human life. As Clarence says, “One man’s life touches so many others, when he’s not there, it leaves an awfully big hole.”

Marin’s George is understandably cranky for much of the play’s 100-plus minutes, but when George gets an angelic kick in the spiritual pants, Marin brings on a full-blown nervous breakdown and rebirth. Even when he’s cranky, though it’s easy to see why sweet Mary (Sarah Overman) would be infatuated with George, who’s smart and ambitious and edgy in ways that other Bedford Falls folks are not.

Rounding out the cast in a number of roles are Carrie Paff, most memorable as Zuzu, George and Mary’s sniffly little girl, and Violet Bick, as close as Bedford Falls gets to a vixen, and Michael Gene Sullivan, who gleefully sinks his teeth into “old money-grubbing buzzard” Henry Potter, the bad guy.

Like any good piece of holiday entertainment, this show is warm and entertaining for its first two-thirds and then gets profound and truly emotional in its last section. This Wonderful Life can stand on its own apart from the movie, which is no small feat, and stake a claim for being wonderful in its own right.

[bonus video]
Here’s the original trailer for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946:

It’s a Wonderful Life continues through Dec. 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

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