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“It’s a Wonderful Life”, 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

From left: Mark Bradbury, Heather Buck, Natalie Herman, April Krautner

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Ambitious, Enjoyable Stage Adaptation of Capra Classic


Frank Capra’s tender tribute to the value of a single human being, and to life itself, is being presented in a fresh new way at 6th Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theater. The world premiere of the newest original musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes for plenty of comfort and joy, with only a few bumps along the way.

Capra’s iconic fantasy film was based on an obscure short story “The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale” by American author and historian Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern could not find a publisher for his story, so he had 200 copies printed up as pamphlets, and put them inside the Christmas cards that he sent to his friends and family in December 1943. Somehow, one of these pamphlets fell into the hands of an RKO producer. Stern’s permission was obtained for film rights, an adaptation was written and kicked around, and in 1945 the motion picture rights were finally sold to Frank Capra. He was quick to see the emotional power and potential of the story, and the following year, through his production company Liberty Films, he lovingly crafted it into what many consider to be his most beloved film. In the late 1940s there were a couple of radio presentations, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprising their roles. Within the past 20 years or so there have been a few other musical stage adaptations and even some live radio plays staged around the country. And, yes…Stern’s little story finally did get published!

Veteran Bay Area actor, teacher and playwright Larry Williams adapted the screenplay for his own original stage production, enlisting the considerable talents of 6th Street Music Director Janis Dunson Wilson to create the musical score. Wilson also collaborated with Williams and Marcy Telles to create the lyrics. In an imaginative bit of storycraft, Williams rewrote the gender of some of the characters, and altered their circumstances somewhat. The lovable Clarence, Angel Second Class, morphs into the scampish girl-Angel Clara. She basically functions as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future combined, showing George Bailey flashback scenes of his dream-filled childhood and youth, and finally, what the world would be like if he had never been born. Uncle Billy becomes an aunt, and some peripheral characters do a gender-bend as well, to mixed effect.

There are some notable musical numbers with strong vocal performances: Natalie Herman as Clara sings “Welcome to Bedford Falls” and a sweet serenade “Do You Want the Moon?” is sung by Mark Bradbury (George) and Heather Buck (Mary). Near the end of the second act, the bluesy ensemble piece “Pottersville” features a scorching torch-song solo by April Krautner, in her role as the seductive Violet. She, quite simply, brings down the house. “Ask Somebody to Dance” is performed by the lively ensemble cast, choreographed by Alise Gerard (“The Marvelous Wonderettes”). Other outstanding performers are Anthony Guzman (Bert), and Williams himself as the evil Mr Potter, the juiciest part in the show. He was so convincing in his role that, at curtain call, when he first appeared to take his bows, he received loud hisses and boos, and then laughter and applause.

Direction by Sylvia Jones and 6th Street Artistic Director Craig Miller serves the story well enough.  The set is very simple, with fixed stations spotlighted to represent various locations around town, and scene changes are effectively achieved mainly by moving spotlights and furniture around. Sound trouble in the form of crackling mikes plagued the show throughout, and there were a number of ensemble cast members who had more than their share of pitch problems.

But the message hits home. Yes, it’s a wonderful life – each and every life – no matter how poor, humble or small we may think we are. This story seeks to show how everyone’s life has power and significance, how each of us touches another in unimagined ways. Sometimes in the telling, in its various and sundry versions, the story can be dark and frightening. But in its newest incarnation at 6th Street, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a bright and pleasant way to usher in the holidays for adults and children of all ages.

When: Now through December 23, 2012

8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays

2:00 p.m. Sundays

2:00 p.m. Saturdays December 15th and December 22

Tickets: $15 to $32 (reserved seating)

Location: GK Hardt Theater at 6th Street Playhouse

52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185