Good, even genuinely and solidly good, could sometimes be better, and the production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Bucks County Playhouse is a case in point.
The show exists in two different worlds. It is billed as a “live radio play,” so in addition to the Goodrich and Hackett script, adapted for the stage by Joe Landry, you see a real-time radio show in progress. Actor Garth Kravits busily creates sound effects and visual displays while he impresses with a well-played array of characters. Kevin Pariseau does multiple duties at the piano and as program emcee. Freddie Fillmore skillfully assays the skinflint villain, Mr. Potter, doddering Uncle Billy, and other roles. “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” story is strategically interrupted for commercial breaks, using actual radio ads from 1946 in an entertaining fashion.
The milieu of WBUX, Doylestown, where the radio play is set, hops with jaunty activity and is fun to visit. As the studio audience, we can revel in how radio is made. Director Hunter Foster and his cast are providing a good time. There’s a lively, upbeat spirit to the proceedings.
But this “It’s a Wonderful Life” is also a play. We’re watching a story unfold, a beloved and moving story that has evolved in recent decades from a Frank Capra “Late Show” curio to an annual December favorite. The theatrics of Foster’s production have to encompass both the simplicity of radio, where actors speak into mikes and don’t have to worry about costumes and physicality, and the emotional, involving complexity of a fully staged drama about a man so beset with his troubles, he considers ending his life rather than facing them. On Christmas Eve!
It’s in providing that drama that “good” can be “better.” Foster’s production is thoroughly entertaining, keeps its story clear, and elicits appropriate tears and laughter where they’re warranted. It has a lot going for it. It effortlessly amuses and ultimately satisfies.
Yet something is missing. For all the satisfaction and fine work, the show doesn’t seem to hit its mark completely. Something doesn’t go quite far enough or totally fulfill “Wonderful Life’s” demands. That something is depth.
Though using a radio format, Landry’s adaptation, like the Capra movie, is capable of building to emotional high points and even to making you think about important things in life and incidents that can threaten the reputation and self-esteem of a man Landry establishes is as honest, forthright, and responsible as one can get.
That is the crux of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that the course of existence doesn’t run smooth, that calamities occur, of our own making or not, and that we must address them with all the decency we can muster. Philip van Doren Stern, who conceived the story Goodrich and Hackett turned into a screenplay, Capra filmed, and Landry found a way to stage, affirms the worth of each individual and the role he or she plays in dozens of lives beyond his or her own. This theme comes through in Foster’s production, but not with the intensity or dramatic impact it could.
Everything moves fast on Foster’s stage. The pace, when it highlights the comingled elements of radio production, provides fun. But there are times when Foster’s “Wonderful Life” is too breezy. It needs on occasion to slow down to allow for more pointed, more poignant drama. It needs to dwell more on the predicament of a man who becomes despondent and desperate and give that pathos as much attention as it’s given to the show’s comedy or to Jennifer Cody’s musical staging.
Foster’s entire production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” plays in one tone, in one key. Lines are read for efficiency rather than for expression. They relay the information we need to follow the story, but they seem unmemorized, as if reliance on a radio script in hand is enough, instead of sincerely spoken or heartfelt. A shorthand replaces vocal emphasis that would put us more in touch with the characters and make them seem more dimensional and full-blooded instead of stereotypical and cartoonish.
Wayne Alan Wilcox, as the distraught George Bailey, gives some variety to his readings towards the end of the show but needs to supply as much texture to his earlier lines and scenes, some of which seem tossed off instead of completely acted. Brisk superficiality may be the style Foster imagines for a radio show, and it does play well enough to divert, amuse, and give an enjoyable understanding of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it robs the piece of the exact touches that make it a venerable seasonal staple.
In addition to Wilcox, Kravits, and Pariseau, the ensemble includes Maggie Lakis, Whitney Bashor, and Brandon J. Ellis, who scores nicely as Clarence, the hapless angel vying, after 200 years, to finally earn his wings. Rob Bissinger’s set is a gem, leaving fly space for pyrotechnics, and Kravits, abetted by castmates, is a whiz at creating effects. Cody’s dance bits are fun, but they could have been integrated better. Sometimes they seemed more like intrusions than the planned, and welcome, pauses they should be.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through Sunday, December 27, Tuesdays and Thursdays (and on Wednesday, December 23) at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 2 p.m. No performance December 25. $29 to $85. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.