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It’s A Wonderful Life earns its wings
Last weekend, if you wanted to view a classic-heartwarming Christmas movie, you could watch, perhaps for the umpteenth time, the Frank Capra classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” about how a goofy angel, in a bid to win his wings, comes to earth to address the holiday woes of a despondent George Bailey in the small town of Bedford Falls.
Or, you could have gone to the Chapman Theatre in Apalachicola and enjoyed a Panhandle Players production of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” done as a live radio play on stage.
If you know the movie well, it would have freshened and boosted your appreciation of its message. And if the story is new to you, your introduction would have been indelible and delightful.
After a seven-year absence from directorial duties due to her tending a loved one through a terminal illness, Pam Vest succeeded in returning to the stage with the cascade of an avalanche, assembling a crew of the troupe’s veterans, casting them optimally, and adding some impressive newcomers.
The first performer whose work deserves mention is that of Pat Leach who makes an unusual appearance onstage as the live and-in-person reproducer of everyday sound effects, the sort used in the radio days.Leach has long been found in the Players’ sound booth, pressing buttons to add music or sound effects to the shows, but this time he worked without the ease of a computerized sound board of digital files. Working in tandem with stage manager Judy Loftus, the duo snapped belts to reproduce punches (there were several fists to faces in the show) or worked a plunger in water to reproduce the sound of George Bailey’s younger brother falling through the ice when the boys were small.
Set in the 1940s at Manhattan’s WBFR radio, and performing both in front of an imaginary live studio audience of the era, and the modern-day patrons who came to the Chapman to enjoy Players’ first show of the season, the cast were each dressed in vintage outfits of the day. This was not only good costuming by Natalie Parsley and her crew, but evoked, for those familiar with Chapman’s nearly century-long history, an era that marked the heyday of the vintage auditorium.
From the moment Nick Avossa, a newbie to Players, opened the evening emphatically, as the golden-voiced announcer of WBFR’s “Playhouse of the Air,” the show took off, thanks to its dozen stars, that many because other than Mike Giere and Faith Ward as George and Mary Bailey, and George’s Guardian Angel Clarence Oddbody, played by Bob Caiola, each voiced several characters, for a total of more than 30.
Giere rooted the voice of his George Bailey solidly in the stammer of Jimmy Stewart, and that did the job of summoning the familiar spirit of a character that’s become indistinguishable from its portrayer on film. The Cape San Blas newcomer to the Players’ stage took it further than mere mimic, and poured out the pain of a man bedeviled by financial despair, something we all can relate to
Ward was up to the task, radiant, supportive, half of a real, not a make-believe, marriage. She did like the others did, changed to a completely different character, smoothly, not with a wink, evidence not only of her growth as an actress, but of Vest’s superb direction.
Caiola was born to play the Angel Clarence, and he made it memorable. His tousled white hair, and the warm, upbeat attitude he sports in real-life, made for a delightful portrayal. He had fun and the audience felt it.
Rob Pierce, taking on only his second role with Players, made, among his many characters, brother Harry sound as if the boys were both the sons of Rose, played properly by Liz Sisung, who also handled some piano playing duties that livened the show, as did the commercial jingles that gave it dimension and added laugher. Jeff Ilardi, as the reprehensible Mr. Potter, was every bit the SOB, Carole Brazsky, frantic and comical in her roles, including a remarkably pitch-perfect baby crying, and Bobbie Seward, a veteran actress who gave her female roles the sexy gusto they needed.
Two others were the finest in the show, but not entirely because their acting outshone the others. Jerry Hurley and Bob Inguagiato were as strong as their castmates in the roles they played. But like Vest, their work on the production came after a difficult stretch in their lives, when each lost their spouse to the ravages of illness.
By getting back on the stage, and giving it their all, they exemplified an entire cast and crew that showed – for one, brief, spirited, evening – that even with the pains that befall us, we each are given, to make of it as we will, a wonderful life.