It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry, from the original screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling. Directed by Jenna Ware.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"This is what I wished for."
Sarah Jeanette Taylor and Jennie M. Jadow; photo: Enrico Spada
Time: Christmas Eve, 1946. Place: a radio studio at the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York City. Circumstances: a snow storm is blanketing the northeast causing serious traffic back-up and taking out electricity grids. WBFR is presenting a live broadcast of the Jack Halloway Show’s Fireside Family Christmas adaptation with holiday music and an adaptation of the just opened Frank Capra film, "It’s a Wonderful Life" which starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore with Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers.
The film flopped and it took more than thirty-five years for it to become the well-loved classic it is now perceived to be by an adoring public. An amazing array of people worked on the story trying to make it less sentimental: Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty), Marc Connelly (The Green Pastures), Dalton Trumbo. Joe Landry, the author of this current edition, has taken the film script, converted it into an aural experience and handed it over to his new characters, five radio actors who could make anything fascinating, even a shopping list for a non-holiday dinner for three. What really happens is the fascinating story of the circumstances under which this holiday broadcast takes place.
The pomposity of the announcer/actor Lionel Harrison combined with the ego and charm of the star of the show Jack Halloway as he woos guest star Sally Applewhite and panders to stock actress Lana Sherwood while musician and actor Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood does everything he can to keep the show running on an even keel while playing thirteen characters and doubling as the sound effects man are the elements that make this show such a joy. The director, Jenna Ware, keeps these five actors on their toes, literally, as they move from microphone to microphone, perform their roles and make their noises, play musical instruments, sing a capella, read the commercials and even take a much needed station break for the news report (written and directed by Dana Harrison).
I spent part of my own childhood working in radio drama in New York City. Watching the work in this show took me back, not to 1946 but to 1962 and my own experiences. It was like coming home again and I mention this only in that it may have colored my perceptions of this work at Shakespeare and Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. Those years at WNYE and WNYC are golden years for me and everything that happens in Landry’s play I either witnessed or experienced first-hand. What happens on stage in Lenox, Massachusetts is as wonderful and lifelike as it could be and for the live studio audience it is exactly what it should be: the glorious world of live radio.
This perfect holiday play features some favorite players in the Shakespeare and Company troupe: Ryan Winkles, David Joseph and Jonathan Croy. Alongside them are Jennie M. Jadow, Sarah Jeanette Taylor, Michael Pfeiffer and Hope Rose Kelly. They all capture the look, sound and essence of the winter of 1946 (my family was snowed in at our apartment building in The Bronx by the blizzard that winter).
David Joseph plays the star of the radio show, Jack Halloway, as he portrays George Bailey, the leading character in the script. Joseph is called upon to sing with piano and without accompaniment and he gives us his highest vocal expressions in these moments, sounds that could give the impression of a boy soprano or a castrato. He does young George in an elevated voice and mature George in Halloway’s own voice and he makes an impact with his growing despair and his realization of the truth of the impact George has had on his small world of Bedford Falls, NY. It is a multi-layered performance that truly charms the audience as he woos with only two kisses his new leading lady.
She is played by Sarah Jeanette Taylor. Taylor’s Sally Applewhite is a professional actress willing to do her work at her best, willing to give to whatever the experience requires of her. With no orchestra she plays the piano. With no sound man she slams doors, rings bells, plays the xylophone. With no romance in her life, she acquiesces to the kisses of her co-star. Taylor is lovely in this work. She is adept at slight comedy and wonderful in the more emotional moments of the play within the play. She never oversteps the boundaries of radio acting when she is at the mike and never underplays her real emotions. I adored her.
Jennie M. Jadow takes on all of the other women in the radio play with pizzazz. Her roles range from George Bailey’s strict, no-nonsense mother, to Violet Bick, the high school slut whom George defends and whose loyalty is never in doubt. She plays both of George’s daughters, his stuffy sister-in-law and others as well. Jadow has a wonderful array of voices at her command and there is never any mistaking who she is playing at any moment. As her principal character, Lana Sherwood, she is the perfect professional strutting through the studio like the pea-hen she is, her acquired peacock feathers in full array.
Jonathan Croy’s character Lionel Harrison is always controlled yet obviously just a bit above his colleagues. With another thirteen characters to portray Lionel manages to screw up voices now and then, but he manages to make that less important than his own presence in the studio. This is the most subtle of performances and Croy is a master at such things. If you watch him closely you can see him judging his colleagues as the move between characters in the play. He, Lionel, is above all of this but is still a most active participant. In a staged accident near the beginning of the show, he reveals himself in annoyance and anxiety and it takes the subtle gestures of Sally to put him in his place. Croy, as always, manages the multiple layers of Lionel with a professional expertise that is enthralling.
Emerging as the true star of the work is Ryan Winkles as Harry. He plays an actor who can work an audience and stay true to his work at the same time. His voices as his many characters are perfection and never vary. He can move from one to another with absolute surety and he almost never stops smiling even when his characters say sad things. His eyes replace the mouth at those moments. His Clarence is perfection and his Martini is superb. He plays the other Bailey men to a tee.
Pfeiffer and Kelly do what is needed to keep the show real and Pfeiffer’s entrance will astound and amuse you. There will be that temptation to close your eyes and listen to the radio broadcast, but don’t do it. Ware’s staging is what makes this show the joy that it is and you won’t want to miss a moment as this simple radio broadcast goes into high gear.
Great costumes by Govane Lohbauer on a smart set by Patrick Brennan under dramatic lighting by Keith Chapman keep the show a show.
I’d see this again if there was time, but I missed the first weeks and saw the play on its third weekend. You can still see it, and you should make this an extra item on your Christmas list. You deserve it.
David Joseph, Jonathan Croy, Ryan Winkles; photo: Enrico Spada
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through December 29 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, Massachusetts. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.