Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ at Aurora Players

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has been an essential ingredient of the holiday season since the film first premiered in 1946, almost as indispensable as eggnog and ugly sweaters. Some families enjoy the holiday tradition of watching IAWL (the movie) on Christmas Eve, while others catch a production of the timeless classic on stage (by my count there are at least two currently playing at WNY theatres). Aurora Players, one of the region’s oldest community theatre groups, is staging the timeless classic until December 9th.   

. . .captures the story’s spirit. . .particularly during the Christmas season.

Over 70 years and endless variations (movie, play, one-man-play, musical, radio show, etc.) later, the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is surely by now in the DNA of Christmas lovers everywhere. Based on the film by Frank Capra and the story by Peter Van Doren Stern, it tells the story of George Bailey (Joe Cassidy), the manager of his family’s local building & loan in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, who—as the story opens– is on the cusp of taking his own life after misplacing $8,000 of the b&l’s money (per inflationcalculator.com, the modern-day equivalent of $102,139!). Just in the nick of time, George is interrupted by Clarence Odbody AS2 (Bob Aquila), a guardian angel who shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds over the years.

George Bailey acts as the story’s main protagonist, a selfless character who has become as associated with the season as Santa Claus. Cassidy—AP’s George—says that “George’s selflessness and compassion embody the Christmas spirit.  He’s the kind of friend everybody wants to have and around whom everybody wants to rally.” Cassidy brought this quality to the surface quite well in his depiction of George, particularly during the “run on the bank”, the scene that ends Act I. He captured George’s generosity and kindness of spirit when it was called for, and also his desperation and emotional spiraling later in the story. While he’s visibly a little too old to be playing George (making the intimate scenes between him and Mary a smidge awkward), he’s a good choice to lead the production and embodies George’s generosity and his love for his family, friends, and neighbors.  

Other standout acting performances come from Daniel Greer as the villainous Mr. Potter, who played the character with the right balance of depravity and restraint (many Potters I’ve seen err too heavily on the villainous side, making the character cartoony); and Bob Aquila, whose Clarence is sweet but often also boisterous and animated, a refreshing take you don’t often see.

The blemishes of Aurora Players’ IAWL are largely on the technical side, and unfortunately the performance I attended had many. It was plagued with late/early lighting cues, sound effect snafus, and botched scene changes. I would have also liked to see a heartier production design; while the inside of the Bailey house is beautiful (kudos to set decorators/painters John Szablewski and David Hall), the rest of the show largely occurs in front of the black curtain, making long stretches of the show visually bland.

Aurora Player’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t flawless, but it captures the story’s spirit and central themes: that kindness, generosity of spirit, and family are the most important things in life, particularly during the Christmas season.

Aurora Player’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” closed on December 9th. For more information, click here.

Top 10 Shows of 2017

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, Buffalo Theatre Guide has been honored to be welcomed into the Buffalo community with open arms. In just a few short months since we launched, the theatre community has taken to us, and with that, we are very proud to be here. We are proud to present the Top 10 Shows of 2017, based on page visits, for 2017. Theatres that placed will receive a printed certificate in the mail in the new year! Please join us in congratulating the winners. These are the Top 10 Shows of 2017, in the order they placed!

10. “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Read Review.

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

9. “Killer Rack – The Feminist Horror Musical Comedy” at Alleyway Theatre

READ Review.

 

8. “Violet”  at MusicalFare Theatre

READ Review.

 

7. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Aurora Players

READ Review.

 

6. “Beauty and the Beast” at Theatre in the Mist

READ Review.

 

5. “The Light In The Piazza” by Second Generation Theatre Company at Lancaster Opera House

READ Review.

 

4. “Billy Elliott The Musical” at Lockport Palace Theatre

READ Review.

The Cast of “Billy Elliot The Musical” at Lockport Palace Theatre.

 

3. “Steel Magnolias” at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre

READ Review.

 

2. “9 to 5 The Musical” by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

READ Review.

The cast of “9 to 5 The Musical” by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House.

 

1. “The Producers” at Kavinoky Theatre

READ Review.

The Cast of ‘The Producers’ at Kavinoky Theatre.

 

 

 

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.

Rocking Horse Productions Celebrates Eleventh Season

For the last eleven seasons, Rocking Horse Productions has been a staple at the Lancaster Opera House. A company that prides itself on casting new and veteran talent, Rocking Horse Productions has been responsible for the start of many theatrical careers in the Buffalo area. A producer of great theatrical content, Rocking Horse celebrates their 2017 – 2018 season by kicking it off with “9 to 5 The Musical.”

“We are excited to be producing this show,” says Douglas Kern, executive producer of Rocking Horse Productions, “it is fun, upbeat, and it is going to speak to many generations.”

“9 to 5 The Musical” is based on the 1980 film, which starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton. A tale of a group of women who are tired of being mistreated by their chauvinistic boss, take matters into their own hands to prove their worth in the workplace. This musical adaptation follows the same plot as the film, and includes a brand new score by Dolly Parton.

“I was a fan of the movie, and I was really excited when Doug asked me to direct this show,” says Leigha Eichhorn who is at the helm of this production, “it’s a fun show that still speaks a current message about equality, and about women who are trying to succeed in the business world.”

This show, which has gone through a transition from its 2009 Broadway run, has songs written by country music legend Dolly Parton, but that should not deter theatergoers who might not be fans of country music. “These songs aren’t your typical sappy country western songs,” says Eichborn, “they keep a positive message.”

In a world where Hollywood film adaptations grace the stage all too often as of late, Eichhorn says that if you are a fan of the movie, you will love this show. “The cast is fantastic and is really bringing the vision to life. The audience will not be disappointed.”

Rocking Horse also is producing the Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” this December. “We are happy to bring this full version of the show to the stage,” says Kern.

This show is under the direction of Jane Navarro, who directed Rocking Horse’s successful run of “A Few Good Men” last season. “It’s A Wonderful Life,’ is a great Christmas tradition, says Navarro, “I am happy to be working with new talent as well as with people I have worked with in the past.”

Navarro says that she is excited to be working with a cast that will reach over thirty people. “Everyone is going to bring something unique to this show that is going to make it very special.”

Navarro says that there is a certain expectation that theatergoers have when going to see a show that is so familiar to them. “You have to toe a fine line between giving the people what they are familiar with, and bringing your own unique twist to the material. ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets it’s wings,’ has to be there, or the audience will be let down.”

Eichhorn and Navarro direct shows later this season as well.  Eichhorn’s next project is “Charlotte’s Web.” “We have never done a show geared toward children before,” says Kern, “so we were honored to be asked by the executive director of the Lancaster Opera House to do so.”

Navarro directs Rocking Horse’s first dinner theatre production, “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class,” one of the sequels to the successful “Nunsense” shows, written by Dan Goggin.

“9 to 5 The Musical” opens on September 8, 2017 at the Lancaster Opera House.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” runs December 1 – 10, 2017 at the Lancaster Opera House

“Charlotte’s Web” runs March 23- 25, 2018 at the Lancaster Opera House

“Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class” runs January 26 – February 4, 2018 at Ripa’s Restaurant.

For tickets and more information, click here.