Just before the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, B.J. Cleveland, portraying 1940s radio personality “Freddie Filmore,” looked into the audience and announced that patrons had five minutes to use the restroom before they were to be “held captive for the next hour and a half.”
Surely some in the packed WaterTower Theatre began to regret that pre-show cocktail. But it wouldn’t be long before they found themselves completely immersed in director Joe Landry’s “show-within-a-show” production.
The stage resembles a historically accurate 1940s radio studio in New York City’s Rockefeller Center – and the impeccable ensembles worn by the five cast members are more colorful versions of the styles seen in so many black-and-white movies of the day.
Landry adapted the 1946 Frank Capra movie about despondent everyman George Bailey, who yearns to break free of the small town of Bedford Falls. Instead, with the help of his family, friends and a wingless angel, Bailey learns the real value of his life.
Cast members Jessica Cavanagh, B.J. Cleveland, Scott Eckert, Jim Johnson, Lydia Mckay, Erin McGrew and Matthew Laurence-Moore play the voices of a number of characters all while staying true to the classic. Each actor portrays a fictional actor, who in turn plays various roles in the simulated radio production.
During an argument between Uncle Billy and the cruel banker Henry Potter, Cleveland, aka Filmore, effortlessly switches back and forth between characters. A radio listener wouldn’t believe it was only one man talking to himself.
Surely she’s heard this before, but McKay’s baby imitation is the cutest thing you’ll see shy of a baby. The foot stomping, wind blowing, water splashing and countless other sound imitations by Scott Eckert are brilliant – and show how creative sound engineers had to be in the days before digital recording.
At one point, Eckert drops a pan, referencing the moment in the film where Uncle Billy leaves George’s house drunk and a sound in the background makes it seem as if he’s stumbled over trash cans.
Thanks to reading the cute “Did You Know?” section in the playbill, I learned that in real life a crew member accidentally dropped equipment at the end of the scene. Capra decided to use the sound in the final cut and even gave the guy a $10 bonus.
Sound is at the forefront in WaterTower Theatre’s production, and it’d be interesting to see it twice – once with your eyes closed. But whether you’re seeing or hearing, this play just might help remind you that, like George Bailey, the world is a better place because you’re here.
Enjoy these photos of opening night by Mark Oristano