Goodspeed's "Wonderful Life": Only 62 Shopping Days...

The Cast of Goodspeed's "A Wonderful Life"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You'd be hard pressed to find a stage of any size anywhere in this country that could match the performing triple threat talent (actors/singers/dancers) on view in Goodspeed Musicals' “A Wonderful Life”. The tale has a fabled history, having first seen life as far back as 1943, as two hundred holiday greetings in the form of a very short story, “The Greatest Gift”, sent to friends by the author, Philip Van Doren Stern. Frank Capra took the work and made it into his 1947 film “It's a Wonderful Life”. Though its initial reception was mixed in the U.S. (it won not a single Oscar), and negative in the U.K., its annual Christmas showing on television led to its becoming one of the most beloved films of all time, as noted by Jeanine Basinger in her “The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book”. It was subsequently adapted for the stage as a musical in 1991, by the team of Joe Raposo (Music) and the prolific Sheldon Harnick (Book and Lyrics). Consisting of some thirty scenes, it was performed in numerous venues over time, and recently revised by Harnick for this production. Its simple (some might say simplistic) treatment of the way different people view the American Dream (happiness, owning a home, or material wealth) struck a chord with audiences then and now. One's enjoyment of this version will no doubt be influenced by her or his feelings about the sentiment or sentimentality in the original film, as this show is by and large quite faithful to its source.

The protagonist's sense of failure and having wasted his time, an individual's belief in himself, the social ideal of egalitarianism vs. capitalism (with its goal of material prosperity), and ultimately one's finding a place where she or he belongs, are all themes explored by this seemingly lightweight story. Often maligned in its various iterations, there is more to this story than initially meets the eye. Underlying the central narrative is the knowledge that the choices one makes in life determine more than we realize, for ourselves and also for others. This musical version has been described as a “romantic tragicomedy”. It may well be time to take a a second look at the wonder behind a life, or as Capra put it, the worth of the individual, quoting the fifteenth century writer Fra Giovanni Giocondo: “There is a radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see...and to see we have only to look”.

The story, in case you're not familiar with it, (what, you never turned on the TV at Christmas?) takes place in Bedford Falls, New York (1928-1945) where the Bailey Building and Loan Association employs family man and banker George Bailey (Duke Lafoon) who long ago longed to travel, go to college and become an architect. All of these goals went unmet thanks to his other priorities, namely the family bank and the family itself. He did manage to marry the shy but lovely Mary Hatch (Kirsten Scott) and have three children. But it was his ne'er-do-well younger brother Harry (Logan James Hall) who got to see the world, and his chum Sam Wainwright (Josh Franklin) who seems to have it all. It's no wonder that George, contemplating suicide, needs a visit from apprentice Guardian Angel Second Class Clarence (Frank Vlastnik), himself in need of earning his wings. Clarence shows George what the world would have been like if he'd never been born, and what the town would have been like if the miserly old banker Mr. Potter (Ed Dixon) had gotten his way. George also sees how he's influenced the lives of many of his neighbors, from Bert the cop (Kevin C. Loomis) to Ernie the taxi driver (Ryan G. Dunkin) to his scatterbrained Uncle Billy (Michael Medeiros) to his matriarchal mother Millie (Bethe B. Austin). By the end, it's no surprise when Clarence is awarded those wings by Executive Angel Matthew (George McDaniel, who also plays George's father Tom Bailey and bartender Mr. Martini).

While the performers are (as Mr. Potter's song puts it) “First Class All the Way”, unfortunately the Book and Score are not. Although Harnick has made a noble effort to reinvent the more maudlin aspects of the story (with some awful puns such as “Frank Lloyd Wrong”, and many predictable rhyming lyrics), the show is hampered by Raposo's largely mediocre score. Only a couple of songs (“Wings” and “In a State”) stand out in the threadbare musical numbers. Director Michael Perlman has stated that the creative team envisioned their approach to the work as that of snow globes into the lives and very souls of the townfolk (reflected, as it were, in the collage of windows in the disappointingly spare Set Design by Brian Prather). As such it became for them a timeless piece, (as Perlman puts it, “at once familiar and new”), though period elements appear in the briefly enjoyable Choreography by Parker Esse (who devised the more extensive dancing in Goodpeed's “Fiddler on the Roof” last year), and the evocative Costume Design by Jennifer Caprio (from the 20's to the 40's). The fine Orchestrations are by Dan DeLange, with the smooth Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-fourth season with the company). The Lighting Design by Scott Bolman and Sound Design by Jay Hilton (which could use some tweaking with the balance of singers and orchestra) are up to Goodspeed's usual level.

The musical's central character, George, had never grasped his influence on the lives of others, how his efforts made owning a home possible for so many of his neighbors, and how he's made use of his life to effect the greater good of his community. He's never seen personal wealth as an end in itself, or the lives of others as commodities. But he's reminded by Clarence that “no man is a failure who has friends”. This is of course followed by the sound of that tinkling bell signaling that another angel (guess who) has just received his wings. Those who love the film will be delighted with this version; those with a low treacle tolerance will not.

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