WFT’s ‘Life’ is a skilled retake of a cultural icon


Danny Bolton and Liz Hayes in Wheelock Family Theatre's "It's A Wonderful Life." Photo: Gary Ng

Danny Bolton and Liz Hayes in Wheelock Family Theatre’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Photo: Gary Ng

BOSTON — Yes, Virginia, I am old enough to remember when there were actual radio dramas, soap operas, and serials. It was what was often called “the theater of the mind.”
You heard the dialogue and sound effects and your imagination filled in the gaps.
The audience’s familiarity with the iconic holiday movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” actually helps when it comes to “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” now being performed through Dec. 22 at the Wheelock Family Theatre.
This adaptation of the movie is actually a play within a play, as the five-member company portrays actors and actresses performing a live radio version of “It’s A Wonderful Life” in a studio at WBFR , a New York City radio station, on Christmas Eve in 1946.
The audience at the Wheelock also becomes part of the audience at WBFR, responding enthusiastically (hopefully) on cue when the applause light goes on. Some byplay between the characters in the moments before the live broadcast begins and then again after intermission deepens the impression of the play within a play concept.

Johnny Lee Davenport as Freddie Fllmore in "It's A Wonderful Life." Photo: Gary Ng

Johnny Lee Davenport as Freddie Fllmore in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Photo: Gary Ng

Danny Bolton plays actor Jake Laurants, who in turn is portraying George Bailey, the hero of the piece. Bolton is a buoyant Bailey, with just enough of the gee-whiz, aw-shucks of the Jimmy Stewart portrayal. Liz Hayes is actress Sally Applewhite, who plays Mary Hatch Bailey, and Hayes, who rarely gives a bad performance, is coquettish at the beginning as she woos Bailey and later concerned for his welfare.
The mellifluous voice of Johnny Lee Davenport is given quite a workout as Freddie Fillmore, the host of the evening’s broadcast. It’s not for the faint-hearted as has to juggle an almost staggering number of characters, at times having a conversation with himself between back-and-forth as both a stammering Uncle Billy and the villainous Henry F. Potter.
The talented Barlow Adamson is Clarence, George Bailey’s guardian angel who helps him see what an impact he has had on his hometown of Bedford Falls. He also plays a multitude of other characters, including a very funny turn as Martini, the bar owner.
Marina Re gives vivid life to a variety of female characters, including the lovelorn Violet Bick and George’s mother Rose.
They are aided and abetted by Aaron Dore and Levin Valayil as the Foley artists, the sound effect masters who are an integral part of the production — it’s hoot to watch them in action and how some of the effects are produced — and Leah Carnow, Carla Martinez and Julia Paolino as the singers who praise in glorious harmony the charms of a hair cream and toilet soap, and also play the Bailey children.
Music director John O’Neil serves up holiday accompaniment, opening themes and “bridge music” between scenes. Set designer Jeffrey Gardiner’s studio rings true, as do costume designer Lisa Simpson’s period clothes. 

Director Wendy Lement has successfully conveyed to the cast the importance of each word when working “the theater of the mind.”
A live radio play can be a little bit static and talky and you worry about it keeping the attention of young children, but the young people at the Friday evening show I attended did quite well, thank you.
Unless you are The Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge pre-transformation, you are likely to be charmed by this skillfully done, different take on a cultural icon.
The Wheelock Family Theatre production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” Adapted by Joe Landry from the movie by Frank Capra, based on the book “The Greatest Gift“ by Philip Van Doren Stern. At the Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway, through Dec. 22.