1940s radio play version of ‘Wonderful Life’ has become a STAGEStheatre tradition.
The Fullerton company brings its annual production of the 1997 Joe Landry play, adapted from the classic film, to the Curtis Theatre.
By Eric Marchese
When STAGEStheatre first produced “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” as a Christmastime show a dozen years ago, it was meant to serve up something for that season which was suitable for the holidays.
No one could have imagined that from that year forward, it would be the centerpiece of the troupe’s November-December schedule. In fact, it’s become a holiday tradition for everyone involved – actors, production staffers, and patrons.
Executive Director Amanda DeMaio has been the driving force behind the show, having originally submitted it around 2008 and directed nine of the 11 productions mounted by STAGES at its longtime venue in downtown Fullerton.
Despite having left that space, DeMaio and dozens of her STAGES colleagues are still active and are now bringing the company’s latest “Wonderful Life” production to the Curtis Theatre stage just in time for the holidays.
It’s STAGES’ 12th production of the show and the company’s first new production since the pandemic forced theaters to close 20 months ago.
In his 1997 adaptation of the 1946 film’s screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and the film’s director, Frank Capra, Joe Landry chose to re-envision the film as a live 1940s radio broadcast, an approach that allows a small ensemble to portray the film’s expansive roster of characters.
The key difference here is that we’re essentially seeing a show-within-a-show, as cast members portray fictitious ’40s show-business stars who congregate at a New York City radio station to perform an on-air version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” for eager holiday-time listeners.
Otherwise, though, the basic plot remains the same: Idealistic George Bailey sacrifices his lifelong dreams while helping others in the small town of Bedford Falls, New York – and on a fateful Christmas Eve, despairing and seeing no other way out, George decides to take his own life.
Clarence, George’s bumbling yet lovable guardian angel, descends to earth and intervenes, determined to prove to George that he has lived “a wonderful life” – and that his constant love and devotion have been a cherished gift to everyone who knows him.
Landry’s isn’t the beloved film’s only stage version; it’s been translated into a full-length, two-act play and also musicalized as “A Wonderful Life” (1991) and “It’s a Wonderful Life – The Musical” (1998).
But DeMaio deemed Landry’s concept as best suited for STAGES.
“Around 2008, I’d been looking for a good show to do during the holidays – one that would be easy to do and that wouldn’t need a lot of rehearsal time or a big set.” She saw a local performance “somewhere,” found a copy of the script and proposed it to the board.
When the inaugural production was a success, “we thought we would do it a second time. Then, once we had done the show twice, we didn’t think about repeating it.”
STAGES’ patrons, though, had other ideas.
DeMaio said repeat viewers from one season to the next are commonplace, and many even see the show on multiple occasions during the same run.
“Over the years, many of our audience members have built this into a bit of a family tradition. They enjoy seeing the show with their family and friends.”
DeMaio has been at the helm nearly every year (Rayanne Thorn and Wade Williamson directed one time apiece). She estimates five different actors have portrayed George and five have played Mary. Clarence and Mr. Potter have each been portrayed by 10 or 11 performers.
This year’s cast includes Frank Tryon and Darri Kristin as George and Mary, Frank Valdez as Clarence, and Steven Biggs as Potter, along with a virtual who’s-who of STAGES regulars: Mo Arii, Paul Burt, David Campos, Judy Mina-Ballard, Cameron Murray and Kathleen Switzer.
Murray and Jeffrey Larson alternate in portraying Lenny Miller, the radio station’s on-air pianist. Jon Gaw plays Foley artist Buck Maxwell, providing the show’s sound-effects, and Rick Lawhorn is radio station stage manager Chip. Company stalwarts Patti Cumby and April Skinner are the show’s producers, and DeMaio herself can be seen on stage here and there, stepping into various roles wherever needed.
DeMaio notes that while nearly everyone involved in this production has at one time or another worked at the Curtis Theatre, it’s the first time STAGES has staged the show anywhere besides its longtime 80-seat home on Commonwealth Ave., where each staging was always “a little crowded.”
“Moving this show into the Curtis lets us breathe and gives us the opportunity to really look at the show in a different way,” she said. “We have a little more elbow room to block the show and to try new things that the other space just didn’t have room for.”
Whether in an 80-seat or a 199-seat house, the show has the kind of timeless appeal that audiences have warmed to ever since the movie was rediscovered through ’70s TV broadcasts and the various stage versions. DeMaio also notes that younger STAGES patrons who have never seen the movie “get to explore (the story) for the first time.”
A large part of that appeal, she said, is because “we can all find some part of ourselves in the character of George Bailey. It’s easy to lose sight of the good you do when you’re having a hard time yourself, and how even the littlest thing you do can make a huge impact on someone else.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 35 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.’
Location: Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea.
December 9-19. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays 3 p.m.
$30 general, $25 seniors/students, $25 medical/military/first responders