The cast of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ in action, in the Shakespeare Santa Cruz holiday production that runs through Dec. 8.
The idea of tackling It’s A Wonderful Life as a staged radio show set in the 1940s, with lots of standing around and no scene changes, might sound like an odd way for the county’s most prestigious, best-known theater company to bow out. But something is strangely added, rather than subtracted, from the production as three chorus girls upstage ring bells, count cash and slam doors for sound effects. Six voice actors, three microphones and a band captivate their audience for an hour and 40 minutes in It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, probably the last Shakespeare Santa Cruz production ever.
The play’s showgirls, who an announcer tells us are out of Cold Spring Falls, New York, but “will warm your hearts,” are wearing Santa hats, as two holiday wreaths hang above. But make no mistake: just like the 1946 film, this stage adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life has much deeper subtexts than the story’s Christmas-y reputation would suggest.
George Bailey, played here by Lucas Brandt, routinely acts against his own self-interest, as in the film—forgoing a college education twice and even his own honeymoon to rescue Bailey Building & Loan from bankruptcy, mismanagement and the greedy clutches of Mr. Potter. That evil banker embodies corruption in the financial sector, and our worst fears about monopolies and money in politics. (We could admittedly debate, in light of 2008’s financial free fall, whether or not Bailey’s insistence on handing out cheap loans was a prudent long-term financial decision, but I digress.)
The radio-themed play, which first premiered during the late ’90s in Connecticut, opens with a chorus-like montage of Bedford Falls, with residents praying for Bailey’s life and the chorus of actors switching character voices at an alarming rate, sometimes harmonizing with one another. The production is an impressive show of voice talent, with most of the actors playing several roles, with particularly gripping performances from Clarence and Uncle Billy played by Gary Wright, as well as St. Joseph and Mr. Potter played by Ted Barton—who looks suspiciously like Bill Kocher. (Did the city’s newly retired water director already pick up a dramatic hobby?)
But somewhere in the radio personalities’ smiles, glances and unspoken nuances are hints of mystery and intrigue within this cast of characters, hiding in plain sight behind their own microphones.
In person, this uniquely American and strongly anti-consumerist Christmas tale has all the charm, chills and ideals of the original, but it feels more alive. The finale was met with whooping, cheering and a standing ovation—something that probably wouldn’t happen in your own living room.
'It’s A Wonderful Life' runs at UCSC Theater Arts Mainstage through Dec. 8.