Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie a bunch of times, but unless you are truly of a certain age, you’ve never seen (or heard) “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” now on stage at Shea’s 710 Theatre and produced by Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . .good night of theatre, you’ll love this production.

First produced as a radio drama in 1947 (the year after Frank Capra made the 1939 short story into a movie) for the Lux Radio Theatre, this version is Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation. It’s set in a fictitious 1946 radio station, WBFR, and Road Less Traveled has outdone itself making sure every detail is in place to take you back. The stage set is late Art Deco, down to the font on the Applause and On Air signs hanging over head, and big head microphones the actors cluster around.

In clever Road Less Traveled style, the show’s opening takes you by surprise, and leads you into your role as a member of the live studio audience for a coast-to-coast radio broadcast. The six actors (Anthony Alcocer, Steve Copps, Kelly Copps, Charmagne Chi, Fisher, and Philip Farugia) aren’t dressed as the familiar movie characters: they are sharply dressed radio stars doing their job on Christmas Eve. And what a job!  Copps and Copps portray George and Mary Bailey, while the other four actors smoothly morph from character to character. Alcocer in particular has many conversations with himself in dueling characters. It’s a joy to watch.

Farugia has the most understated but important role of all: he’s the Foley Artist, the head sound effects guy who slams doors, makes thunder roar, and in an impressive aural and visual moment, vigorously flaps an umbrella to suggest the chugging of a train.

The others add to the soundscape, too. This is the fun stuff for the post-radio generation to watch. Flicking a deadbolt lock is the ticking of a clock. A scrub brush on a washboard is a sled wooshing down a hill. Watch Kelly Copps’ face as she sloshes her hands into the bucket of water, and later attacks the same basin with a plunger. The actors (and their characters) are having a good time.

The Copps couple (real life spouses) are charming as the Bailey husband and wife, aging in place from kids to teens, adults. Chi is perfectly sultry as the vampish Violet (“why this old thing,” she says when George admires her dress, “ I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.”) and winsomely whiny as at least two Bailey kids. If Fisher’s Mr. Martini sounds more Jamaican than Italian, his smooth baritone chops are perfectly angelic as Clarence ordering mulled wine (heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves).  The only quibble is Alcocer as Uncle Billy, who drawls more like a southern belle than sounding like the befuddled old uncle. Otherwise he nails the smarmy radio announcer patter and malevolent Potter characters scowls easily.

Director John Hurley brings out the best in his cast: the ensemble babble to simulate crowd noise is effective, and the frequent stage crosses to get to the mics and the “green room” (where the actors retreat to knit or read when not needed at the mics) are fluid and natural.

This kind of show – while seemingly simple – is built on complex layers of details.  The “commercial breaks” in the broadcast were value-added mentions for the production’s actual sponsors, delivered in classic vintage radio style. Heavy color saturation in the costumes, well-coiffed hair, Max Factor perfect makeup are all on point.  A minor distraction was the excessive reverb in the sound mix: maybe it was meant to give that authentic ‘40s sound (but the studio audience would have heard a more pure in-studio mix). It either dissipated as the night went on, or my ears got used to it.

Landry’s adaptation has most of the moments you love from the movie, but the real delight of this production is the show-within-the-show staging. If you loved “Remember WENN” when it too briefly aired on cable TV from 1996 to 1998, or have fond memories of listening to radio dramas, or just appreciate a good night of theatre, you’ll love this production.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with no intermission.

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” runs until December 17, 2017, is produced by Road Less Traveled Productions, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.