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Theater Review (Bridgeport, CT): It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

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There is no doubt that It’s A Wonderful Life is an iconic American movie. It is a testament to ordinary people who, through the course of doing what they think is right, become everyday heroes who touch the lives of the friends, family, and neighbors around them. Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre faithfully and lovingly brings this classic movie to life in this radio play of the Capra classic. This show is just as touching and poignant as the film, with performances that evoke laughter and tears. Despite the troubled times we live in, you will leave the theater with uplifted hearts and be filled with the spirit of this joyful holiday season.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, a dreamer and would-be adventurer who never quite makes it out of his hometown, Bedford Falls. He constantly acts as the unsung hero, who saves his younger brother from drowning as a youth, saves a druggist from making a fatal error, marries the girl next door, steps in to take over his late father’s Building and Loan business, and in the course of everyday life becomes a friend to most of the people in the town. When faced with a dilemma that could mean ultimate ruin, George contemplates ending his life, but through the intercession of an angel named Clarence, George comes to see that his life is too precious to be thrown away, despite his desperate circumstances. When George returns home, he finds that his lifetime of good works was not in vain, as all of his friends, family, neighbors and business associates come to his aid.

The story is filled with the everyday reality of a quiet life and also with elements of fantasy, with the supernatural agent, Clarence, showing George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if he had not been born. It is full of archetypal characters – the hero, George; the fair maiden, Mary Bailey; and the villain/ogre, Henry F. Potter. It is truly an American version of a fairy tale.

Joe Landry, the playwright of this radio production, also combines elements of reality mixed with fantasy. It is a radio play, so we listen as the story of George Bailey’s life unfolds before us, yet our imaginations are also engaged in visualizing the world of Bedford Falls. All the while, we are watching the behind-the-mike antics of the cast and the technical intricacies of putting on a radio program. The way the sound effects are made, and the comic and sometimes frantic endeavors to hit all the right cues with sound and spoken word, are entertaining in themselves.

Under the skillful direction of Bert Bernardi, It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play showcases the talent and versatility of its excellent cast. With only five cast members, all the inhabitants of Bedford Falls come to life. A few of the cast members provide several voices, often in the same conversation. A surprising element in the radio program was how the voices of a cast of five are modulated to sound like a crowd.

Jimmy Johansmeyer stars as George Bailey and has all of the everyday, aw-shucks likeability of Jimmy Stewart, who starred in the movie. Mr. Johansmeyer’s George is full of humble uncertainty, yet a quiet strength is evidenced by his stuttering yet poignant condemnation of Henry Potter and his ilk. It is very easy to identify with and to cheer on Johansmeyer’s George. Terry Brown shines in her portrayal of Mary Hatch Bailey. Mary is also an unsung hero of the story, the wife who supports George in all of his endeavors and who serves as his quiet inspiration for a simple life.

The more difficult task of playing most of the other characters falls to Matthew Daley, Maria Vee, and Robert Watts. Among them, they provide the voices for Clarence, Bert the cop, Ernie the cabbie, Violet Bick, Mr. Gower, Henry F. Potter, Zuzu, and others. I truly enjoyed the performances of all three actors, and wish to applaud the versatility of their characterizations. I especially commend Matthew Daley for his comedic efforts at filling in missed cues for sound effects. He was a joy to watch.

All in all, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a wonderfully enjoyable and thoroughly entertaining show. It is a timeless story full of ideals and hope for the future. What better time than during this particular holiday season?

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre through December 13th. Visit the website or call 203-576-1636 for tickets.

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About CindyC

Cindy is a Connecticut writer and member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. She has had many changes in her life, but one thing has always remained the same: her life-long love of theater.