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.


First Look: ‘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.

Picture it:  in almost every living room in 1945, a common fixture was a radio. Some sat on a table, others were a free-standing piece of furniture. It had only one purpose, albeit a lofty one: it had to bring the world into the home over the AM only frequency, complete with the air-ish whistles and pops that forced you to pay attention.  There was nothing to watch, except perhaps the clock so you knew when to turn to your favorite station for that show you didn’t want to miss, or perhaps to avoid hearing news of a world at war that was hard to escape. It was a different time.

Fast forward to now:  no doubt there’s a flat screen TV on the living room wall, and if there’s a radio, it’s probably companioned to another device. Even when you “listen” to radio over your computer, there’s often a video component, as if our aural sense needs a backup plan. Our world is visual, fast-paced, and in your face.

Road Less Traveled Productions is taking us back to the 1940s with “ It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” the on-stage version of this beloved movie’s radio drama adaptation. Confusing? Consider it a classic mash-up of literary and theatrical genres. The original rendition was a privately-published short story written in 1939, which inspired Frank Capra’s classic film released in 1946, which begat the Lux Radio Theatre Drama in 1947. That production became a theatrical production in 1997.

Picking the right version was a priority for RLTP director John Hurley. “We picked an adaption of the movie and not the original story. The movie is something everyone loves, and people might be disappointed if they came and didn’t see a scene they loved. “

Seeing a beloved movie come to life on stage is one thing: watching the show within the show brings a special element to this production, particularly since only ‘senior’ baby boomers are among the theatre goers who remember listening to live dramatic productions on the radio. (With the exception of public radio listeners who enjoyed Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and Sirius XM’s Radio Classics station.) It’s an exciting way to experience a show with a familiar storyline, too.  Watching actors ‘act’ other characters is just part of the fun. All Foley sound effects will be ‘performed’ on stage, too. There are no off-stage enhancements.  Hurley says, “We’re pretending it’s the radio drama performed in front of a studio audience.  This makes you use parts of your brain that we’re not longer using in this day and age,” says Hurley.

Actors portraying actors who are acting creates an interesting dynamic: this six-member cast is portraying 45 roles, clamoring to share three onstage microphones, typical for radio dramas back in the day, and they even help create the Foley sound effects.  The cast also doesn’t leave the stage.

Kelly and Steve Copps portray the actors playing George and Mary Bailey, a fun opportunity for this real-life husband and wife.  Kelly says, “In essence, these people are very much like us. They’re your average guy and girl, and like every guy and girl, they have beautiful moments, and tough times.” 

They agree that sharing the stage is great fun. Kelly says, “We’re obviously very comfortable with each other, and aside from it being lovely to fall in love on stage, it’s great to watch each other work. Steve is so charming as George Bailey that I dare anyone not to fall in love with him.” Steve says, “As parents of children ages 3 and 1, it’s wonderful to have some time to ourselves (even if we are on stage in front of hundreds of people!) There’s already an innate sense of comfort with her, so it makes any potentially anxious situations easier.

Neither Copps have listened to radio dramas before, but are energized as actors by the unique edge it brings to the production. Kelly comments, “I have a soft spot in my heart for this style of music and dialogue, but the radio aspect is new to me. I love to close my eyes and listen when the others are speaking, and doing the Foley effects.”

This “theatre of the mind” aspect of radio carries over to the theatre experience, too. The set is a 1940s radio studio and green room, down to the late art deco décor. The actors are costumed as famous radio actors in street clothes, not like characters from the movie. The props and set pieces are things you would see in a radio station, not Bedford Falls. The cool factor is heightened with the traditional Foley sound effects performed on stage, led by Phil Farugia. “If you’re going to tromp through snow, you’ll see how it’s done without actual snow on stage.” Even with these visual prompts, “everything has to be done with the voice,” Hurley says. “If the audience closes their eyes, they should feel like they’re watching the movie.”

And you’ll know what happens when you hear a bell ring.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is onstage at 710 Main Theatre, produced by Road Less Traveled Productions from Dec 1-17, 2017. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.