Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

The cast of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

Even if you’ve never seen “It’s A Wonderful Life,” you’re probably familiar with the story, or the memorable “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” line. The stage adaption by Rocking Horse Productions brought back memories of my childhood, sitting in the living room with my family on Christmas week and marathoning holiday movies, but with a better understanding of “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” concepts like money and hopelessness and finding the strength to get through it all.

. . .charming in its simplicity and it’s family friendly quality.

From what I remember as a kid, the play stays true to the 1946 classic. The show opens on George Bailey, standing at a snow covered railing on Christmas day, ready to end his life. We don’t know why yet, until Clarence Odbody arrives, claiming to be George’s guardian angel. Clarence takes George through events in his life, hoping to show George his accomplishments and remind him of the happy life he has lived. We see a young George with big dreams of going to college, being an architect, meeting his future wife, Mary. We see how, as a child George saved his brother from drowning, addressed a medication mix-up at a job he had, and won a decision against the richest man in town, Mr. Potter, from taking his family business. It’s through these flashbacks that we begin to understand who George Bailey is and his impact in the town of Bedford Falls.

The story comes full circle as George’s uncle Billy takes $8,000 to deposit for George’s company the Building and Loan, and accidentally misplaces it right into Henry Potter’s possession. Potter, the main antagonist of George’s life, seizes the opportunity to hide the money and claim a scandal against George and his company, calling the police on him after George desperately runs to him for a loan, unknowing that he has the money. A mess of events follow, and George laments to Clarence that life would be better if he’d never been born. Clarence makes it so, and takes George through a montage of what life would be without him in it. George’s brother would have died because George wasn’t there to save him, his employer would go to jail because of the medication mix-up, and the Building and Loan would have ceased to exist, prompting his uncle Billy to lose his mind.

I won’t spoil the ending, just in case. This stage adaption of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is very well done, reflecting all the original elements of kindness and family that made the film a classic. However, perhaps because of that, the production falls a little flat, it’s tame, safe, unable to stand out or stay with you after the show is over. Sometimes classics are classic for a reason, but there was a missed opportunity to make the narrative of “It’s a Wonderful Life” stand out for a 21st century audience. This is the same story we’ve all heard before, told through awkward stage cues and a chemistry between Mary (Robyn Baun) and George (Angelo Heimowitz) that wasn’t there until the second half.

Some standout performances came from our villain, Henry Potter (Tim Joyce), and exuberant, money grabbing old man intent on making George’s life miserable. And Michael Breen, who plays the guardian angel Clarence Odbody, quietly captures the audience’s attention with a serene presence and calming tone of voice that sounds sincere and helpful. The set (designed by Chuck Ziehl) is simple yet effective, able to be mixed and matched up to establish new locations and settings (my favorite was the Bailey house, decorated in Christmas décor).

In all, Rocking Horse Productions rendition of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” although not unique or daring, is charming in its simplicity and it’s family friendly quality.

Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” runs until December 10th, 2017 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information and tickets, click here.