Theater Review: Can Water Tower Theatre Bring New Life to a Holiday Classic?

Part of the joy of attending WaterTower Theatre’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is its accessibility, no matter your level of familiarity with the movie. Looking to introduce someone to the beloved story? Philip Van Doren Stern’s ageless tale of gratitude and appreciation still resonates. Been watching the film yearly since it was released in 1946? You’ll delight in the vocal quirks the actors nod to in their performances. Feel like there’s nothing new left to discover about Bedford Falls? Test your trivia knowledge by spotting the sly in-jokes hidden throughout the show.

The novel presentation—including numerous Foley props handled expertly onstage by Scott Eckert and Erin McGrew—transports its audience to a 1940s Manhattan radio station. The time warp starts before you even enter the theater: oversized black-and-white glamour shots of WBFR’s principal performers line the hallway, introducing us to the five people who will be personifying George Bailey, Clarence Odbody, and dozens more. Once inside, B.J. Cleveland is warming up the crowd while the other actors gargle, hum, and get ready onstage. This participatory nature continues with cues for applause and a short Christmas carol sing-a-long before going “live on air.”

Clad in period 1940s costumes courtesy of Barbara Cox, the cast looks stunning. An Art Deco façade by Rodney Dobbs sets the scene, but we’re left to imagine most of the action on our own. It’s difficult not to simultaneously picture the iconic movie scenes in your head, but the cast and director Mark Fleischer are successful in seizing the story as their own.

Matthew Laurence Moore plays George Bailey, transitioning seamlessly from excitable young boy to desperate family man over the course of the show’s 100 minutes. He dips into Jimmy Stewart’s exaggerated Midwestern accent only occasionally, providing just enough nostalgia to satisfy without veering into parody. Jim Johnson also flirts with Henry Travers’ distinctive line delivery as the Angel Second Class sent to rescue George from Christmas Eve suicide, but stretches his vocal talents in a handful of other roles ranging from George’s young son to Italian bar owner Giuseppe Martini.

Jessica Cavanagh is called upon to voice characters as sweeping as the comforting Ma Bailey, girlish Zuzu, and town bad girl Violet Bick, done as a breathy Marilyn Monroe homage. Lydia McKay portrays only Mary Bailey (and the occasional crying baby), but her commitment to the character is grounding.

Cleveland might duke it out with Eckert for the title of hardest-working man onstage: he voices everyone from goofy Uncle Billy to evil Mr. Potter to the velvet-tongued station announcer, often carrying on conversations with himself for minutes at a time. His ability to switch characters as quickly as he does adds a layer of showmanship that helps keep the production from feeling too static.

Though it enjoyed only a modest showing when first released, It’s a Wonderful Life was quickly adapted into a radio play in 1947. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their roles three times on air, making this reimagining by Joe Landry less of a quaint exercise and more of a historically relevant throwback.

Another particularly accurate tip of the hat comes when Eckert accidentally nudges a steel tub off his props table, earning horrified reactions and a fiery glare from Cleveland for the clattering interruption. The “accident” happens to occur when Uncle Billy is leaving the Bailey household after being over-served, and Cleveland recovers quickly by pretending the racket is Billy stumbling into some garbage cans. While filming that same scene for the movie, a stagehand dropped his equipment and actor Thomas Mitchell incorporated the noise into his performance. Frank Capra kept the happy accident in the film’s final cut, and this clever stage wink to the scene’s origins helps bring this holiday classic full circle.