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It’s A Wonderful Life Review

Cold cereal stands in for snow as Eventide’s sound effects rule ‘Wonderful Life’ in Dennis

Jingle bells, jingle bells….. or, in this case, a tiny celestial bell that rings each time an angel gets their wings. That’s at the heart of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the famous holiday film we all grew up watching. It was creatively adapted, in 1996, as a live radio play, now performing at Eventide Theatre Company in Dennis. The old-time 1940s radio format has cast members performing in front of stand-up microphones like early vocalists. The speaking roles are augmented by special audio props wielded by practitioners known as foley artists, whose job in that era was to create the imaginative special effects for a radio show’s background.

Name of show: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”

Adapted from Frank Capra’s film (1946) by Joe Landry (in 1996), directed by Toby Wilson, performed by Eventide Theatre Company.

What it’s about: The setting is a fictional 1940s radio broadcast studio airing a drama production called “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

For the few remaining people in the Western world still unfamiliar with this American classic, “Wonderful Life” concerns a small, ordinary town called Bedford Falls, where one George Bailey, who’s lived there all his life, is mostly wishing he were someplace else. It’s the age-old story: George thinks that escaping his boring life for romantic destinations will lead to fulfillment, when really that fulfillment is happening in the present, right under his nose, in no-place Bedford Falls. Just when George, discouraged and stuck, feels about ready to pack it in, his guardian angel, who’s been watching from above, offers George a quick re-wind of his life and shows him that the stars are really shining close to home after all. It’s a timely message that illustrates the transcending power of community in our lives.

Actors Steve Ross and Charles Gifford, III use object to create sound effects, like cold cereal cereal as someone walking on snow, in an art form known as Foley acting.

Photo courtesy of Bob Tucker, Focalpoint Studio.

See it or not: See it. No matter how many times we’ve seen this tale enacted, there’s usually nary a dry eye in the house at the conclusion, when George understands just what the world would’ve looked like without his steady presence, and joyfully retrieves his life. The bells sound from the top of the holiday tree, signaling that angel Clarence has earned his wings, a heavenly award. Here’s to George Bailey, “the richest man in town!”

Highlights: This show within a show is a great tutorial on how the world survived before television came to stay, when audiences nightly tuned into the worlds of their imagination. Audio comedies, dramas and mysteries were made “larger” through the work of Foley artists, skilled practitioners who imagined and then created the sound effects that brought excitement, tension and a feeling of realism to the verbal action. It’s more than just the sound of footsteps or a door closing. In “Wonderful Life,” cast members and Foley artists Steve Ross and Chuck Gifford work in sync, orchestrating their large table of props to create close to 70 different effects, responding to 140 sound cues. Corn flakes sounds like crunching snow; a plunger punched into a tub of water becomes someone splashing into a lake. Wind whistles, taxis pull up to the curb, doors slam, sirens wail and dropped items scatter on a surface. A hand-held microphone amplifies the effects, and it’s often a great laugh.

Interesting fact(s): The radio performances that captivated audiences from the 1930s through the era of World War II and beyond delivered magic to millions of listeners. Some of it still lives on with spoken word radio that flourishes on local stations throughout the country, and through live dramatizations like this one that illustrate just how the whole thing worked.

Worth noting: This cast of 12 plays more than 25 different roles, exchanging places in front of the studio mics. Leading the excellent ensemble are Frank Hughes as George Bailey, Susanna Creel as Mary Bailey, Bill Salem as Clarence and a superior Drew Krauss as Old Man Potter.

If you go:  Performances of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays, through Nov. 12. Performed on the Gertrude Lawrence Stage at Dennis Union Church, 713 Main St., Dennis. $31. Box office: 508-233-2148; more information at www.eventidearts.org.

Barbara Clark, contributing writer

That was one of if not the best theatre experience I’ve ever had while on Cape Cod. Seriously, bravo to you!!

Dan M

Eventide Theatre Company is a 501(c)3 independent theatre located in the heart of Dennis Village and is known for presenting  thought-provoking plays, concerts, lectures, and mixed media events. Annually Eventide hosts the Kaplan Playwriting/New Plays competition.