Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical

Unless you have been living under a rock since 1946, you are familiar with the beloved holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It’s the show that proves that we may not know what impact we make on the lives of others, but suicidal George Bailey — with the help of an angel, Clarence — gets to find out how his life changed his hometown of Bedford Falls.

By way of disclaimer, I have to admit that this was never my favorite Christmas movie, and I’m not sure that music improves it, but the Sacramento Theatre Company has a winner in its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: the Musical,” this year’s holiday offering.

The show — with book and lyrics by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer — was first performed at the University of Michigan in 1986. Performances followed in Warsaw, Ind., in 1988; Milburn, N.J., in 1990; and Washington, D.C., in 1992. In 2005, a staged reading was held at the Shubert Theater in New York, as a benefit for the Actors’ Fund of America.

The show was the holiday choice for the Majestic Theater in Dallas in 1998 and became its annual holiday production for five consecutive years.

Now “It’s a Wonderful Life: the Musical” is making its Northern California premiere, directed by executive producing director Michael Laun.

The original music for this show is rather odd, reminiscent of “The Music Man,” lots of popular music of the 1940s, and “Les Mis” all rolled into one. The choreography is lively and done well, the voices are for the most part quite good and yet the show drags a bit, which is really due not to the production or the performances, but to the nature of the story, which takes forever to do the set-up to George’s emotional breakdown.

It’s a wonderful cast of 27, some of whom are double-cast and alternate within roles. Jerry Lee is George, who, as a young man, had grand plans to see the world, then go to college and become a famous architect. Instead, being the good son, he gives up his plans in order to save the Bailey Building and Loan Association, following his father’s death.

It is brother Harry (Sean Patrick Nill) who gets to have the opportunities George hoped to have, while George stays in Bedford Falls and marries Mary Hatch (Jackie Vanderbeck), with whom he has four children. Vanderbeck is spectacular, the perfect wife to George, as self-sacrificing as he is, and the actress has a gorgeous voice to boot.
George’s nemesis, Mr. Potter, the richest man in town, is played by Gary Martinez. I have seen Martinez in the role of the angel, Clarence, several times and it’s odd to see him be such a mean old man, but he is perfect in that role.
As for Clarence, the second-class angel hoping to win his wings, Jim Lane is endearing and, though bumbling, eventually finds his footing … and earns his wings.

Michael RJ Campbell plays George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy, distraught at the loss of an $8,000 deposit, which brings the Building and Loan to the brink of ruin. Campbell, frequently seen as the larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Present, seems to be a shadow of his former self, though he still gives a larger-than-life performance.
Anthony Dicorti and Jerald Bolden play the town cop and taxi driver and give good performances, but are probably best known because their character names are Ernie and Bert. (Muppet people claim that any connection between these characters and the beloved Muppets is strictly coincidental.)

Laura Woodruff deserves mention, playing Violet Bick, seductively sweet on young George, and later Ruth Bailey, Harry’s wife. She has a classic beauty and shines on stage.

The four Bailey children are each double-cast, but it is the youngest, ZuZu (Emily Trnka, alternating in the role with Noa Solorio), who catches the audience attention as she recites her famous line about every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

Sacramento Theatre Company has produced several Christmas classics, which are repeated many times over the years, and it is clear there is now a new show that will enter into circulation and be presented many times in years to come.

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