1940s Family Fare Film Classic turns up as Holiday musical in Johnstown
Review by Tom Jones
November 30, 2016
The year is 1928. George Bailey is a bright young man on the threshold of making his mark on mankind. He has been raised in a loving family. His kind father owns a savings and loan company, and has taught George what is right and wrong, what is good and what is evil, and how to treat everyone with respect and kindness. George has finished high school and is set to go to Europe to begin life’s experiences away from his home in Bedford Falls. He plans to enter college upon his return from Europe. Then a lifetime of “skids” begins.
Seventeen years later the once-promising George Bailey sees his life as a failure. His finances are a mess, due to no fault of his own. He is in such despair that he questions the value of his life, and is contemplating suicide. Fortunately, angels in Heaven have been watching him. Saint Joseph, a heavenly angel “in charge” realizes that George is desperately in need of angelic guidance. He summons another angel, Clarence, requesting that he go to Earth to guide George. Clarence is an unusual choice. He has been in Heaven for 200 years, but has not yet obtained his actual angel “wings.” His peers claim that he has mentality of a rabbit. It is now Christmastime of 1945. Clarence is instructed about George’s life through a series of flash-backs to 1928. He is dispatched to Earth to help George, and hopefully obtain his official angel wings.
Matt LaFontaine and Tom Mullin are both excellent actors – LaFontaine as the bright George Bailey, and Tom Mullin as Clarence, the heaven-sent angel hoping to help Bailey come to terms with his situation. Mullin’s Clarence is a super study of a kindly guardian angel put in a situation beyond his normal ability. He is disarmingly caring, and the audience is with him every step of the way, hoping he’ll succeed and receive he desired angel’s wings. He truly lights up the stage. And when he has a chance to show-case his talents with a song and dance, “Wings,” the audience has full admiration. Bailey is a very smart man, and LaFontaine plays him to perfection with terrific stage presence and acting skills.
The idea originated in a 1938 short story, “The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern. Movie director Frank Capra immortalized the tale when he created “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1949 movie starring” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. The movie became a family favorite. It turns up frequently on television, primarily during the holiday season, when families look at what “life was like” so many years ago. I had watched snippets of the movie over the years, but can’t remember having seen the entire film. Much of the audience, however, appeared to know the story very well.
While Matt LaFontaine as George and Tom Mullin as Clarence are the show’s stars, they enjoy very good support from Sarah Grover as George’s wife, Mary; David L. Wygant, as the evil Henry Potter; and Timothy Campbell as the bumbling alcoholic uncle Billy. Kenn Sugg is convincing as George’s father, and Annie Dwyer, equally good as Mrs. Bailey. Markus Warren is very strong as the college-educated Sam Wainwright who has every opportunity not afforded to George. Jon Tyler Heath is given opportunity to display very good dancing skills as George’s brother Harry, who is sent to college using George’s money. Chelsea Young plays Dorothy Reynolds, who marries the wealthy Sam Wainwright. Alisha Winter-Hayes is in dual roles – as a heavenly angel, Francis, and as Ruth Bailey, Harry’s wife. The children playing the children in the Bailey family at Christmastime are all very charming. Heather McClain plays Violet Bick. She also provides choreography for the delightful Charleston dance contest early in the show. The production has been staged and directed by Donald Berlin, assisted by Patrick Sawyer.
The story line is slow in developing. It is not until midway through Act II that the heart of the story is presented – the idea that George has been so kind, honest, and helpful to others, that his existence has been of great worth. The angel Clarence is successful in showing what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if George had not been there to make it better.
Music and lyrics are provided by Joe Raposo and Sheldon Harnick. Raposo is best-known for composing the theme song to “Sesame Street,” Harnick has a long list of successful Broadway shows including “Fiorello,” “Tenderloin,” “She Loves Me,” and the incredible “Fiddler on the Roof.” Raposo and Harnick collaborated on “A Wonderful Life.” It was initially staged at the University of Michigan in 1986, and ran for the Holiday Season of 1991 at the Arena Stage at Washington, DC.
It reached New York in December of 2005 in a staged concert version with all all-star cast, and has subsequently shown up nationwide at a variety of locations. The music is pleasant, although not memorable. The message itself is timeless. “A Wonderful Life” ultimately succeeds as a reminder of how our lives impact on everyone around us. The audience didn’t leave the theater humming the tunes, but appeared to have a great impression of how basic goodness will prevail.
“A Wonderful Life”
Where: Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown
To: December 30, 2016
For Tickets: Box Office: 970/744-3747