by Terrance Mc Arthur
Come with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when radio ruled the airwaves, and radio shows were more than recorded songs and political rants.
The Sierra Repertory Theatre is performing It’s a Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play on its East Sonora stage through December 22, directed smoothly by Scott Viets, and it’s a wonderful show and a wonderful idea and a wonderful experience! I’m telling you…it’s wonderful!
What started as a 1943 24-page Christmas-card pamphlet for 200 friends became a 1946 Frank Capra movie with Jimmy Stewart. A first-time guardian angel shows a suicidal man what the world would be like if he hadn’t been born, and the story has been replayed in countless TV-movies and sitcom episodes. In Joe Landry’s adaptation, it’s December 24, 1946, and a group of performers (4 actors, 3 actresses, 1 musician, 1 sound-effects guy) have braved a snowstorm and made it to the Art Deco studio of WSRT in New York City to broadcast a radio version of the new film It’s a Wonderful Life.
The action starts before the show goes on the air, as soon as the audience enters the auditorium, when the actors wander the area, interacting with the crowd, led by Harry Jazbo Heywood (Tim West)—an old-time comedian who will play Clarence, the second-class angel—and Jake Laurents (Tom Andrew)—a slickly-amorous matinee idol in the Jack Cassidy mold, preparing to attempt Jimmy Stewart’s role, George Bailey. When the “ON AIR” sign lights up, Andrew doesn’t imitate Jimmy Stewart, but the attitude and stammering style slide off the script pages and into the character. West’s knockabout humor seamlessly metamorphoses into the befuddled goodness of the 292-year-old Clarence.
Chris Carsten, known for his performances in Fresno area productions and for touring nationally as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, gets to break loose from his nicer roles as the announcer/narrator and head-angel Joseph when he takes on the sound of Lionel Barrymore (Simon Bar Sinister to Underdog fans as the greedy banker Mr. Potter, even miming the turning of his wheelchair wheels as the sound is produced by Justin Lang, who creates thunder from sheets of metal, bar sounds from Coca-Cola bottles, and a crackling fire from crinkling paper.
Susan Chapman is glowing and intelligent as Mary Bailey, supporting George no matter what happens to the plans they have made. Caitlin Randall, a Sierra Rep veteran, exudes warmth as Ma Bailey, and manages to sound convincingly like a little boy. Cathy Schenkelberg’s actress-character, Lana Sherwood, is confident and brassy; she’s cheap, loose, and not-too-bright as Violet, and innocent as George’s daughter, Zuzu. Nick Ferucci is a cheap-suited wonder as he spins from George’s over-achieving brother Harry to the Italian-accented bar owner, Martini, in the space of a second. Mark Seiver provides the music for the radio show, creating an emotional soundtrack for the actors.
SRT uses a combination of professional actors and talented amateurs to create theatrical magic in the Sierras. West and Andrew have played their roles for four years in San Diego productions. The show will help you realize what was lost when radio theatre faded away. You might want to close your eyes and just listen, but—if you do—you’ll miss a show that’s…….terrific! (You thought I’d say wonderful, didn’t you?)
Sierra Rep’s East Sonora Theatre is 13891 Mono Way in Sonora. 2 p.m. matinees are on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, evening shows are at 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, with an 8 p.m. curtain on Saturday night. Tickets range from $26 to $32, with discounts for seniors, children, students, and groups. For more information, contact (209) 532-3120 or www.sierrarep.org.