Mary MacDonald Kerr,
Jack Forbes Wilson, Debra Babich and Norman Moses.
The nostalgia is pretty thick in Next Act Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show. Or maybe it’s better to say it’s “layered.” And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Playwright Mary MacDonald Kerr knows good source material when she sees it, and uses the screenplay for Frank Capra’s holiday classic as a basis for the show (and it’s one heckuva credentialed screenplay, using a stable of writers who—in various combinations—were also responsible for movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Thin Man, The Diary of Anne Frank, Gone with the Wind and A Star is Born.)
To make it stageworthy, MacDonald Kerr invents The Cream City Players, a radio drama troupe on Milwaukee radio station WNET. Unfortunately, the station management switches to an “all-music” format, and thus pulls the group’s plug.
Hence, we get to feel the sweet sting of times gone by a few times over—the wholesome values of small-town Bedford Falls America, the Capraesque style of 1940s movies, the memory of radio drama’s inventive creativity and the imaginative listening it demands. And there are even several references to bygone Milwaukee—radio jingles for Usinger’s and that old triumvirate of Milwaukee brewing—Hamm’s, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Blatz.
But if Holiday-fueled nostalgia is wrong, well I won’t wanna be right. IAWL:LRS (if I can call it that) is a show of many-layered charms, both familiar and new. Much of that delight is courtesy of the way the performers handle the Capra dialogue and dance around the radio-studio set to create characters, crowds and assorted atmosphere.
They are all Milwaukee veterans who each bring something special to the mix. David Cescarini (also the director) puts his sound-design skill onstage as the company foley artist. When he isn’t playing one of several minor characters in the story, he’s behind his effects table—slamming doors, sloshing water, ringing bells and creating a persuasive backdrop to the story. Jack Forbes Wilson is a charmingly sweet and daffy Clarence, and he also provides atmosphere of his own with piano and keyboards. Bo Johnson shows himself a talented mimic, nailing Lionel Barrymore’s cynical Mr. Potter sneer and Sheldon Leonard’s Runyonesque tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold patois. And Debra Babich plays a breadth of Bedford Falls folks, including the sweetest Zuzu imaginable.
As Judy and James, the lead couple, MacDonald Kerr and Norman Moses have double duty: bring Capra’s familiar George and Mary to wonderful life, and create a backstory for the radio actors playing them. You see, five years ago, the pair flew off the handle when performing the great “telephone scene,” which finally jump starts George and Mary’s on-off relationship. And this year….
The pair are charming and charged with an easy chemistry. I won’t spoil the love story. But I will say that playwright MacDonald Kerr shows nice restraint in the final moments of IAWL:LRS. You all probably realize that George Bailey doesn’t end it all, or go to prison, and that Clarence gets his wings. So it’s nice to see an ending that adds a layer of ambiguity and restraint to the well-crafted and familiar sentiment that we all know and love.