Ozarks Technical Community College Fine Arts Department will present Joe Landry's stage adaptation of the beloved Frank Capra holiday movie It's a Wonderful Life at the Gillioz Theatre, 325 Park Central East, November 20-22. It's an innovative and evocative time-capsule treatment of the story, depicting a live late 1940s radio broadcast of the Wonderful Life script.
The fact is, there actually was a radio version of the film in 1947, presented as part of the weekly Lux Radio Theatre series on CBS Radio, which offered live one-hour audio adaptations of popular motion pictures, performed before a studio audience, usually with at least some of the actors from the original movie. In the case of It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their film roles, but comic actor Victor Moore played Clarence the guardian angel on the radio, in place of Henry Travers in the film. (OTC student Matt Winston plays Clarence in this production.)
Jon Herbert, Theatre-Drama instructor at OTC, directs the production. After listening to the actual Lux Radio Theatre presentation on YouTube, he concluded that it really wasn't quite adequate to tell the story as it should be told. "I was pleased that the script that we're using, written by Joe Landry, is a much better, much fuller script. Our production is about an hour and a half long. (And) it's very true to the (original movie) script."
Wonderful Life, of course, is the tale of George Bailey, who receives a gift from heaven at Christmas time: the opportunity to see what the world would be like had he never been born. Portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra movie, George is played by Daniel Busch in this OTC "Live Radio Play" production. Daniel notes, "It says right in the script, 'the typical American dreamer, George Bailey.'" And that's key to Daniel's interpretation of the role. "Then you add some good character--because that's one thing George Bailey has, is a lot of character." Part of that character is the frustration George suffers from being stuck in the family building-and-loan business in Bedford Falls, while his dreams and ambitions fall by the wayside. He never even makes it to college.
Rachael Thompson plays George's wife Mary Bailey, who she calls "a college-educated lady who seemed to have loved George Bailey her entire life. And when it comes to showing her feelings for George, you can see it in every scene--even when they were children."
Since the setting of this stage adaptation is a big-time radio broadcast, Jon Herbert describes the set as "very simple. It's got a really nice Deco backdrop--we're pretending that we're in the actual (radio) studio theater-auditorium. There's a set with a little faux fireplace and some holiday decorations, and some seating for the actors. There's a Foley (sound-effects) area where our Foley artists will be creating live sound effects. The concept for this was to create a complete immersive environment. As soon as the audience walks into the (Gillioz) Theatre we want them to feel like they've stepped back in time into the 1940s." Even the theater ushers are playing characters--they portray ushers at the radio station/network studio. "We'll have a jazz trio in the lobby that will be playing 1940s tunes."
The onstage microphones evoke the Golden Age of Radio atmosphere as well, says Jon Herbert. "Our construction artist Leroy Barker has brilliantly created replicas of the RCA model 44 (ribbon) mikes (a real RCA 44-A is pictured above for this article)." Good thing they went with their own locally-built knock-offs: actual vintage RCA model 44 mikes go for around $3,200 online these days! "Ours cost way less," jokes Jon, adding that the mockups are actually fitted with modern condenser microphones. "And the effect is really, really cool."
The recreation inside the Gillioz Theatre of a 1940s radio broadcast will include flashing "applause" signs for the audience, and even commercial breaks during the show. One of the commercials is for "Dux Toilet Soap," which Jon Herbert calls "a nice little homage to Lux Radio Theatre."
Audience members are even encouraged to dress 1940s style if possible. Jon Herbert is quick to point out that "it's not a requirement--we don't want that to keep anybody away. But we thought it would be so fun."
Actors Rachel Thompson and Daniel Busch say that they aren't just portraying Mary and George Bailey--they're playing radio actors playing those roles on a live broadcast. In other words, Rachel is actually playing the role of "Sally Applewhite," a radio actress playing Mary Bailey on the air... and Daniel is playing a radio actor named "Jake Lawrence" who is portraying George Bailey on the show. Got all that? Rachel admits that "it can seem quite complicated!" But it's been interesting for the OTC student actors as, during rehearsals, they've developed not just the Wonderful Life characters, but the personalities, alliances, conflicts, even romances, of the radio actors playing these roles. "And you can kind of see that in the background within the play," says Rachel.
Adds Jon Herbert, "We've been playing with this idea that perhaps there's an offstage romance between one of the actors and another, and maybe there's a jealousy, somebody got a role that another actor wanted. And so we've done a little bit of improvisation with that--and some of that finds its way into the production in very, very small, nuanced ways--the audience probably won't even pick up on it. But it does give a little bit of color, a little bit of texture to the acting. There was one night (during rehearsals) where Rachel's character was just surly! And it was so funny. I said, 'That's great that you're really taking this direction... but we can't go that far with it in the performance!"
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play will run Friday and Saturday November 20 and 21 at 7:30pm, and Sunday Nov. 22nd at 2:30pm at the Gillioz Theatre. General admission tickets are $8.00, available by calling the Gillioz box office at 863-9491.