By Kimberly Rau
It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday classic, and, over the years, has been performed in a variety of ways. There’s the classic black and white film. There are musical and non-musical stage versions. But the Gamm has found one of the most charming ways to present it, re-creating this old favorite as a 1940s radio play, complete with old-fashioned sound effects and era-appropriate commercials.
You enter the theater and are greeted by cast members wishing you a merry Christmas. Someone is playing Christmas carols at an upright piano, setting the atmosphere before you even find your seat. Should you arrive early enough, you may be asked to fill out an “instant message” to someone “here with you or at home” (though WGAM is, of course, a fake radio station, they take the idea of at-home listeners very seriously). Whenever there’s a commercial break (Rhode Island College and Greenwood Credit Union are sponsors), the cast reads a few of the messages aloud, to the delight of the audience (“I’m sorry I overpaid for parking. Happy Hanukkah,” and “Merry Christmas my dear. I’m so lucky to have you as my beautiful wife,” read a couple from the performance I attended). It’s a small bit of audience participation that goes a long way towards a more immersive theater-going experience.
The play itself is the same story you know so well: George Bailey, who never managed to shake off his small-town in favor of global travel, is saddled with a growing family, failing business (including idiot family members on its board who lampoon any chance he has at success), and a sense of personal dissatisfaction. When it all comes to a head on Christmas Eve, he contemplates suicide, until Angel (Second Class!) Clarence is sent to show him what life would be like had he never existed.
This version, adapted by Joe Landry from the screenplay and directed by Damon Kiley, puts familiar and new Gamm faces in the roles of radio personalities, who take turns reading for all of the Wonderful Life characters. Tony Estrella plays George Bailey, with Madeleine Lambert taking on the roles of Mary Hatch and Rose Bailey. Fred Sullivan Jr. takes on the extremes of good and evil by playing both Clarence the angel and Henry Potter the slumlord. Everyone in the show does a beautiful job with this holiday classic, including Gamm newcomer DJ Potter, who is responsible for all of the sound effects in the show. The radio commercials are sung in harmony, in keeping with the 1940s.
Estrella called the show “the heart of [Gamm’s] 35th season,” and it’s easy to see why. This family-friendly show is accessible and enjoyable for children, people unfamiliar with the story and those who consider it a holiday staple. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the embodiment of Christmas spirit and warmth and deserves a spot on your calendar.
It’s a Wonderful Life runs through Dec. 22 at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266.