It’s a Wonderful Life is an essential part of the Christmas season.
The movie, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, can be found on nearly every major TV and cable station after the Thanksgiving holiday. Peninsula Community Theatre’s (PCT) decision to perform the Radio play version of It’s a Wonderful Life is intriguing. This reviewer has never encountered any local theatre which has produced this play.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Radio Play) was written by Joe Landry. The concept is that before television, the largest popular form of entertainment was the radio. Families would have their dinner and then sit around the radio waiting to hear either the news or their favorite radio program. Radio shows were usually done by just a few actors playing multiple characters and there was a person responsible for all of the sounds created during the show. “Commercial breaks” were done by the same actors that enacted the plays.
PCT’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Radio Play) is directed by Clayton Hill, and the Stage Manager is Kathleen Veer. The cast includes Mike Diana as Freddie Filmore, Paul Lawrence as Jake Laurents, Kate Goddin as Sally Applewhite, Katy Feldl as Lana Sherwood, Billie D Wilbert as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, Vickie Snyder Anderson as Foley Sound Effects Artist #1 and Bonnie Carlson – Foley Sound Effects Artist #2.
I took the opportunity, while visiting PCT, to interview the Director and a few cast members of It’s a Wonderful Life (Radio Play).
AltDaily: What sort of person is going to love this show?
Clayton Hill: Almost all Americans because this is a quintessential American show. Everybody knows it’s on TV every holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It is ubiquitous, almost 24 hours a day. You can’t miss it. I don’t think there’s anybody in America who hasn’t seen the film It’s a Wonderful Life at least once if not 1,000 times.
Mike Diana: It has a universal theme and during the holidays… it’s the only happy Christmas story I have seen. Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer has problems. Frosty the Snowman has problems. The miser has problems and will be redeemed to save Christmas. This play speaks more to the human condition as opposed to just Christmas. I think it speaks better about who we are as Americans. The movie’s time period was a tenuous time in the country and it was directed by one of the greatest directors and was acted by some of the top actors of the day. As far as an audience appreciation, if parents have seen it then they will want their kids to see it. Also, who gets to see a radio show anymore?
Why do a radio version of It’s a Wonderful Life?
Mike Diana: The radio version afforded us not to be stuck with all the trappings of the original stage play. The play was rewritten as if it was a radio program. The visual aspect of a radio program was that they all had audiences. The reaction of the audience was part of the enjoyment that radio listeners had for the program. The radio listeners were far more willing to visualize and believe what they heard. It works as a radio program.
What was challenging in bringing this script to life?
Mike Diana: I play seven or eight different characters, including the announcer. Try coming up with eight or more different voices and recognizable characters that people already know. We can be at the microphone talking to ourselves as three or four different people. The rest of the cast has to step back as you suddenly become the “Seven faces of Eve.”
Katy Feldl: I play 12 or 13 different characters but I think there’s also another challenge. Because this is a radio play there’s limited blocking and staging. So we are conveying our character primarily through our voice while telling the story.
Since you play a multitude of characters, do you have a favorite?
Katy Feldl: Sadie and Zuzu are my favorites. Zuzu has the classic line “Look daddy, every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.” Everybody knows that line from the play. I like doing the voice. Zuzu is very young, as you know, she’s five or six years old. Sadie just happened; I was doing something different with Sadie and then one night I got up to the microphone and it just came out. Everybody seemed to just crack up and really like it.
What can you tell me about the sound effects?
Clayton Hill: It is a challenge to make something sound like somebody is falling through ice. We don’t have a pond on stage that is covered in ice. So how do you reproduce the sound of ice cracking and the big splash? We are still working on the splash part. But the ice cracking, we have it down pat. Just when you think that the sound effect is correct and that it is really going to work; then you try it and it sounds cheesy, so you’re back to square one. There are 100 sound effects in the show. Every single one of them you have to work on. It is important to find just the right combination of materials to recreate that sound and which conveys something to the audience and supports the written dialogue.
Are you bringing anything new to the story?
Clayton Hill: I tried to bring, as faithfully as I could, Frank Capra’s vision of what It’s a Wonderful Life was supposed to be. Therefore I didn’t do anything new or outrageous beyond what Capra would have put in his movie. A messianic figure, who through his own innocence loses strategic battles that he ought not lose. He’s really an innocent, who is just trying to court Mary. It is almost hilarious at times. But then he has to get a whole bunch of little people, as Frank Capra calls them, and they come to his aid to overcome big greed. That’s the story of It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s as simple as you can put it. Most Frank Capra films, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, has the little man against the big world- and you can’t do it without the help of the little people.
The play is an ensemble. We want It’s a Wonderful Life to be a smashing success that the audience gets to see as a live radio take and which will carry its timeless message through the holidays.
Peninsula Community Theatre presents “It’s a Wonderful Life (Radio Play)” by Joe Landay through special arrangement with Playscripts, Inc. Performances take place at Peninsula Community Theatre, 10251 Warwick Blvd, Newport News VA, on December 1 – 17 . Get more info, prices, and purchase tickets here or by calling 757-595-5728.