Nov. 15--It's a re-creation of a radio play. How tough could that be?
A lot tougher than you'd think, according to Scott Viets, who directs "It's a Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play," which runs today through Dec. 22 at Sierra Repertory Theatre's East Sonora Theatre.
"Initially, you think it would be easy; they stand at a microphone and talk," Viets said. "But as we all know, theater is a visual art form and radio is an audio art form. It really surprised me how complicated it was on many different levels."
Not the least of which was, "How to make it theatrically entertaining visually and not just a bunch of people standing at a mic for two hours," Viets said.
It turns out, the production based on the beloved holiday classic provided a lesson in choreography, with seven cast members, all except lead Tom Andrew, voicing more than one character, stepping to and from the four microphones and sharing the air with a pianist on the stage and a foley operator, who provides every sound effect, from doors opening to crickets chirping.
The result is a show set in 1947, when stars would often recreate their films as radio dramas. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, who star in Frank Capra's 1946 film, "It's A Wonderful Life," re-created the film three times on radio, first in 1947 for the Lux Radio Theater.
In the modern version written by Joe Landry in 1947, the cast members are "movie/broadway stars" of the day gathered to re-create the story on the air. They mingle with the audience as it arrives, during intermission and after the show. In between, they provide a live radio broadcast of the story of George Bailey, upstanding citizen of Bedford Falls who gives up his own dreams to help his friends and family. When money from his family savings and loan goes missing on Christmas Eve, George contemplates suicide, but changes his mind when an angel, Clarence, visits and shows him what life would have been like without him.
The formula is not only a staging challenge for Viets, but unique for the cast.
"One of the funny things is if you don't make facial expression or react in some way, it sound likes your just talking," said Andrew, who played George Bailey in a San Diego production of the show for six years. "If I'm moving myself around, like I'm getting grabbed or roughed up, it changes the tone of my voice. The viewing audience will be interested in it and the listening audience will hear the inflection in my voice. It's difficult to get used to that."
Andrew, however, can sound like a victim of some thug while sitting in his home talking on the phone. It's a skill he first learned for a part in a 1940s war radio program, then honed to portray George Bailey.
"With all the years I've done this, there's still something very relevant about the message," said Andrew, who first watched the film with his grandparents when he was a child growing up in Somerset, Mass. "Every year I did it, whether depression, or bullying, a lot of that is represented and those are issues today. This man is willing to do anything it takes to help. He doesn't realize how important he is to those people. He gets the opportunity to see what life would be like if he wasn't there. We don't realize how strong our impression is on people, even if we only met them once.
"That's the message. Jimmy Stewart felt the same way. It's a special film, a redemptive film about a man who gets a second chance to look at his life."
All that is news to Viets, who grew up in England, where his mom was born and his father was in the U.S. Air Force.
"I had no relationship with 'It's A Wonderful Life,'" Viets said. "I've never seen it. It wasn't shown on television at Christmas time in England. What we saw were the Rankin/Bass animation things, 'Frosty' and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' 'It's A Wonderful Life' and 'Miracle on 34th Street?' I've never seen those. Someone bought me the DVDs and they're still in the cellophane. I pulled out 'It's A Wonderful Life' with the intention of watching it, then I started getting into the play. Often times I direct shows I'm not that familiar with. I like that element as well. It's a discovery for me."
In working with the play's manuscript, Viets seems to have taken from it what most take from watching Jimmy Stewart.
"It's beautiful. It really is," Viets said. "Now, I understand why it's an iconic classic. It's not just a Christmas film. It's the message that one person affects so many lives in ways we don't even know. The character of George Bailey, the integrity and humanity he has. He's like Atticus Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird." They're both men who are great role models for any age, that any person could aspire to or admire. It's really so heartwarming. The message is so clear and beautiful but they're not hammering you over the head with the message. It develops in such a human way. I will watch the movie. I'm excited to watch the movie. It's a brilliant, sweet story."
There seems to be very little middle ground on "It's A Wonderful Life." People tend to either love it or hate it, and Andrew's experience with audiences of the radio play is interesting.
"Myself and other cast member would say good night to the audience (in San Diego)," Andrew said. "It was great to hear so many people say they never liked the film but just loved this. It has its own redeeming facets as a live play."
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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