News Column

'Wonderful Life' gets the radio treatment

November 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 29--There's a reason a movie from 1946 remains a touchstone in the holiday movie canon and even more so when it's pared down to its core cast and dialogue.

Adapting the Frank Capra Christmas classic, Robidoux Resident Theatre's production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" strips down the movie to its bare bones, with only foley artists and five cast members recreating the story's many memorable characters and sounds.

The play starts Nov. 29 at Robidoux Landing Playhouse and will run at 7:30 p.m. (with dinner at 6:30 p.m.) on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. (with lunch at 12:30 p.m.) on Sundays through Dec. 15.

"It's a classic icon and it's almost expected just like 'Christmas Story.' That's the tradition here in St. Joe, and every year, people come out to see it. It's the same show, but it has a different twist each time," director Jeremy Eaton says.

Purists don't need to be worried. It's still the same script Capra used, adapted for the stage by Joe Landry, with a small cast and crew capturing the struggles and joys of George Bailey.

For those not aware of how angels get their wings or what one person's life means to the world, the story follows Bailey (played by Joe Morak), a down-on-his-luck man who gives up on everything, including his family and dreams, and decides to end his life on Christmas Eve by jumping off a bridge.

While on the bridge, a guardian angel named Clarence Odbody (played by Erik Smith) attempts to stop him by showing him all of the lives he has touched over the years and what would happen if he was never born.

For Eaton and most of the cast, it's a story that has been passed down by each preceding generation, with lots of memories and thoughts attached to it.

"We've watched it all (when) we were growing up and through my adulthood and adolescence. It's kind of a family tradition," Eaton says.

Thinking of the theme as he got older, Eaton says it was one that always stuck with him.

"(It's) the point of what really happens if you were not here. What holes are not filled and what either good or bad could happen if you were not here. It's that question of 'What if I were never born, what would happen then?' I just like thinking about those types of things," he says.

Done in the style of popular 1940s radio programs, with the stage looking like an old studio and the audience being the live crowd, the play aims to capture the aesthetic of popular radio programs like "The Abbott and Costello Show" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" to today's "Prairie Home Companion" by Garrison Keillor.

"I wanted to create something warm and create something that looked like a radio studio," Eaton says. "In the '40s, they like their earth tones and their beiges and their taupes."

While the aesthetic works well, the production wouldn't click without an entertaining cast willing to wear many different hats and do a variety of voices.

At a run-through on Nov. 25, the cast, including Smith, Morak, Krysten Pray, David Ezzel and newcomer Jennifer Rhoad, along with foley artists Sarah Hovenga and Weston Lundy, ran through a ton of accents, noises and emotions, capturing the fun and kitsch of an old-time radio show.

Eaton says the balance between making it both an entertaining audio and stage experience is essential. The cast is lively and animated to play it up for the crowd while also keeping their imaginary listeners at home entertained.

Some scenes, like the famous pool party, don't translate well to the stage, but Eaton says the cast does a good job painting a picture with words.

"For the most part, it stays pretty true, almost verbatim, to the script of the movie. They just did some cuts where it would obviously be hard to simulate that in an audio experience," Eaton says.

Bringing on relative newcomers to Robidoux Resident Theatre, including Rhoad, Smith and Pray, also has helped bring a new perspective to the whole process.

"I always love working with new people because they have fresh ideas and just fresh ways of working. It's nice to have a fresh breath of air and new personalities just to throw in the mix," Eaton says.

Coming straight off of one of RRT's biggest shows,"Les Miserables," Eaton was looking for something on a smaller scale. Cultivating a collaborative experience for the production's small cast and crew, it turned out better than he had expected.

With the show being an experience for the whole family, Eaton is quick to point out that in addition to the performance, dinner will be an option for people not looking to cook another big meal.

"Everyone just got done cooking for Thanksgiving, so it's dinner theater. So they don't have to cook or do dinner for their family again," he says. "It's just really to get people in the spirit of the season."

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.

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(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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