It’s a Wonderful Life

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By Philip Pearce

THE CABRILLO COLLEGE TheatreArts presentation of a musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life has energy and commitment but needs a lot of work.

A cast of students and mature Santa Cruz area players sing and dance nicely and they act, for the most part, effectively. Chris Perri’s music does well enough by the brisk dance sequences, especially a delightful early trio called “We got friends.” The score also offers some darkly ironic angry rock numbers by the hero and his antagonists, but, surprisingly in such a sentimental work, boasts no memorable love ballad.

Scenes from the town of Bedford Falls are effectively back-projected and set units glide smoothly in or are lowered from the flies, though scene shifts would be better if they happened more briskly.

It’s in Marcus Kaufman’s book, or libretto as the program terms it, that major changes appear which don’t really improve or refocus the plot of the movie.

It’s still the story of a man named George Bailey, who’s decided to commit suicide because he wishes he’d never been born. He’s well-acted, sung and danced by the engaging David Jackson. And there’s still a nice trainee-angel named Clarence, who helps George see that he’s made a wonderful difference in the lives of his family and friends.

It’s all been moved from the post-war 1940s to the post millennial world of computers, disco and smart phones. One element in the updating works well. Henry Travers’ wistful and aging cinematic Clarence has become an eager and exuberant Jamaican seraph, played with great charm by Jarrod Washington. It’s a smart change. The movie, all full of banks and housing projects and libraries, is not an immediately obvious choice for a musical. Putting Clarence into the musical ranks of a bouncy, swaying heavenly gospel choir is the best thing about this new script.

It’s in the down-to-earth events of the adaptation that major problems arise.
In the movie, we know right from the beginning that our hero George Bailey wants to kill himself, though we don’t immediately know why. And we know that Clarence will win his wings as a First Class Angel if he can persuade George not to jump into the river. At the beginning of this stage version, all we know is that Bailey faces some kind of personal crisis and needs guidance. Kaufmann and Perri possibly assume that most audiences will know from the movie what is at stake, but the movie’s events always carry the strong added tension of being elements leading to a suicide attempt. In this musical version, we are much less invested in George Bailey’s fate until everything about it falls apart late in the second act.

Fans of the movie will also miss some of its more memorable sequences. Early on, for example, the teen-aged George rescues his brother Harry from drowning. On the screen, this happens before our eyes. It would in no way go beyond the technical resources of the Cabrillo theater to have it happen on stage as well. But it is only mentioned, almost in passing, during an early conversation between Clarence and Tammi Brown’s perky and spirited Head Angel Sista. Later in the story Harry Bailey will become a World War Two fighting hero who wins the Congressional Medal of Honor. Part of George’s regeneration happens as he realizes that if he hadn’t rescued Harry as a boy, neither his brother nor the platoon of Marines he bravely rescued during the war would have survived. That boyhood act of bravery is too important an element in George Bailey’s saga to be launched by a mere passing mention in the opening scene of the musical.

George’s “Buffalo Gal” courtship of his classmate Mary Hatch is played with a lot of sentimental comedic charm by James Stewart and Donna Reed in the movie. In the musical, Morgan Peters sings powerfully and acts convincingly as Mary, but the script elects to set an intense but unconvincing rift with George and to burden her with an overly-emphatic torch song titled “Turn and Look.” It’s followed by an irrelevant chorus number called “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” presumably about George’s inability to read the right romantic signals from Mary’s supposed involvement with another guy named Sam Wainwright (Adrian Miller).

Director Kathryn Adkins indicates in her program notes that one reason for updating everything was modern day anxiety about the vaguely Christian atmosphere of the old Capra screenplay. This may explain why the musical adds a puzzling new character named Nickie, played with a lot of force and vocal strength by Lizz Hodgkins. She’s done up in colorful thrift shop finery and dark glasses and seems to represent an easy-going new age rejection of main stream spirituality and values. But for all her cheerful spunk and energy, she doesn’t affect George or his problems one way or the other, whereas Clarence and the angelic ladies up on Heaven’s Bridge spend the evening controlling most of the ups and downs of his life.

Elements of George’s fall into suicidal despair are crammed together pretty relentlessly and are not always convincing. In one emotionally top-heavy sequence the local naughty girl Violet (Kylie DesChesnes), having tricked George into leaving her briefly unattended in his Savings and Loan office, manages to pencil some quick changes into his account books that are so damaging and unchallenged that they immediately cost him his job. That this shady lady would have the financial knowhow to effect such a ruse and the skill to do it convincingly in the course of only about two minutes takes some believing. And a bit of DNA testing would easily have exploded the subsequent claim made by George’s arch enemy, Henry Potter (Michael Stark), that George has fathered Violet’s expected baby.

Finally, the script could use pruning. Sunday’s performance logged in at more than a hefty three hours, counting a fifteen minute intermission.

I have to remind myself, of course, of the frequently forgotten fact that when It’s a Wonderful Life first came out in 1946 movie critics were cool about its merits and its initial run did not even cover production costs.

Maybe I need to consider the possibility that this world premiere of the musical version will become a stage classic.

We’ll just have to see.

It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2, until November 21.

Photo by Jana Marcus