"It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" adapted by Joe Landry
Now onstage at Toronto's Young People's Theatre until December 30
Credit: Dahlia Katz. L-R: Anand Rajaram, Cliff Saunders, Amy Matysio, Caitlyn MacInnis, Shaquille Pottinger
‘A veritable communal theatre experience of old-time radio. Tremendous fun with a splendid cast highlighting the important bonds of family, love, and friendship. Give yourselves a gift this Christmas/holiday season and see IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play.”
Usually seen around the Christmas/holiday season, Director Frank Capra’s iconic film (based on the story ‘The Greatest Gift’) is retold in an adaptation by Joe Landry, now in performance at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. A terrific ensemble of five performs the classic story, this time as a 1945 radio broadcast.
The Ada Slaight stage is set as a radio studio, and the audience becomes the studio audience. The story is told by the actors’ voices and foley sound effects.
We’re in Bedford Falls. A young George Bailey has always cared a great deal about others. He puts their needs ahead of his own throughout his life. On one Christmas Eve, George encounters a situation he cannot fix. He begins to feel as if there is no other option than to do the unthinkable: take his own life and leave everything behind. At this point, George is met by Clarence, a guardian angel who takes him on a journey around the town to show him what the world would be like if he never existed in this life and if his good actions never transpired.
I think I was one of the last few who finally watched the entire film a few years ago. The reason why I chose not to do so? The suicide threat didn’t appeal to me in what is supposed to be the Christian season of light and hope in our lives.
YPT’s production reinforces ‘Wonderful Life’ isn’t a story about contemplating suicide. It’s far more, especially for young people to hear and to see. ‘Wonderful Life’ continues to recognize the bonds of love and friendship, themes of the Christmas/holiday season. The story goes further as it teaches that life matters and is worth living no matter what may befall people. I will most likely watch the film again.
Shannon Lea Doyle appropriately designs the setting and the fashion look of 1945. Faithful recreations in clothing style and realistic-looking era props have correctly captured the era, as have Shawn Henry’s lighting designs. The Foley sound effects are one of the show's staples, and they do not disappoint in the least, thanks to John Gzowski's design and consultation.
Director Herbie Barnes’s heartfelt admiration for the story permeates thoroughly. It’s a challenge of a play to stage and Barnes has made some apt choices that work exceptionally well. His actors must understand the nuances of all the characters, provide a variety of voices, learn the dialogue, and execute the exact timing of the required sound effects, which would have required ample rehearsal time. Like the brand-new car we’ve purchased, we expect all the parts to work in tip-top shape and their full potential to provide the smoothest ride.
With Barnes as prime automotive service technician and in the driver's seat, enjoy the ride in YPT’s production. It remains in tip-top shape from beginning to end, thanks to this talented cast who want the audience to have a good time.
The five artists capably breathe life into the characters. Anand Rajaram confidently opens the show as radio announcer Freddie Filmore with a great bravado that I couldn’t help but smile when he enters. Rajaram also channels his inner Jimmy Stewart at one point, making many around me (and me) erupt in raucous laughter. Don’t forget that Stewart played George Bailey in the film.
Shaquille Pottinger is a dashing-looking Jake Laurents who voices George Bailey. Pottinger’s Bailey remains delightfully charming and childlike when he finally recognizes that his life, value and worth mean something within the Bedford Falls community.
As Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, Cliff Saunders’ bow-tied looking Les Nessman (WKRP in Cincinnati) becomes an adorably endearing guardian angel, Clarence. What is charming to watch and hear occurs when Clarence takes George back to Bedford Falls and shows him what life would be like without the latter’s presence. It’s a perfect reminder of another classic that now plays this time of year - Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ where the three ghosts invite Ebenezeer to see what life is like with him present and when he is gone.
Caitlyn MacInnis (Sally Applewhite) and Amy Matysio (Lana Sherwood) develop strong women character foils for George. MacInnis’ Mary (wife of George) channels an inner Donna Reed from the film, but they go a step further for this radio play. MacInnis’s facial responses and reactions say a great deal about what’s occurring at the present moment, whether they are conversing with one person or a group. Amy Matysio’s Violet channels a comical seductress as Violet, who was interested in George before Mary came along.
Final Comments: In his Director’s Note, Herbie Barnes writes that post-pandemic, the company wanted to focus on bringing back joy to the theatre.
He has, the company has, and this production certainly has done so.
I’m hoping (and yes, even praying) this radio play might become a staple perhaps every other year as ‘A Christmas Carol’ was at Soulpepper.
See YPT’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play.
And Merry Christmas to us all.
Running time: approximately 85 minutes with no intermission.
‘It’s A Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play’ runs until December 30 on the Ada Slaight Stage at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East. For tickets, call (416) 862-2222 or visit youngpeoplestheatre.org.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play
Adapted by Joe Landry
Based on the story ‘The Greatest Gift’ by Philip Van Doren Stern from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Herbie Barnes
Set and Costume Designer: Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting Designer: Shawn Henry
Sound Designer and Foley Consultant: John Gzowski
Stage Manager: Bradley Dunn
Performers: Caitlyn MacInnis, Amy Matysio, Shaquille Pottinger, Anada Rajaram, Cliff Saunders