Every year around the holidays you see the same “classic” Christmas movies: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Babes in Toyland,” any number of different versions of “A Christmas Carol,” “Gremlins”… the list goes on.
This year, Perseverance Theatre chose to produce a live version of perhaps the most beloved Christmas film of all. And I don’t mean “Home Alone.”
I’m talking about “This Wonderful Life” — which runs through Dec. 31 at Perseverance — a theatrical adaptation by Steve Murray, conceived by Mark Setlock, based on the 1946 Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Now, many theaters might use a Christmas show as an excuse to deck the stage with lavish sets, extravagant costumes and big production numbers. The original film certainly did, employing a fully constructed 300-yard long “Main Street” and several-thousand tons of man-made snowfall.
Most refreshingly, however, Perseverance’s “This Wonderful Life” makes holiday magic without all the ribbons and bows and boughs of holly (although, there is some fake snow).
In fact, the production is a purposeful exercise in low-fidelity: Winking light bulbs serve as angels; a steel desk, as the Building and Loan offices; a small set of steps with a loose railing post, as the fixer-upper Bailey home. I have to say, I dig the “less-is-more” aesthetic, especially considering all the gold-plated opulence I’ve been watching on the news every day since Nov. 8.
But most economically — not to mention notably — in Murray’s inventive and playful script, just one actor, Perseverance Actor-in-Residence James Sullivan, plays all 30-plus roles.
Under the crisp direction of Alison Holtkamp — an actor, herself, who’s also recently appeared with local stand-up comedy group Club Baby Seal — Sullivan breathes new life into a 70-year-old story so simultaneously dated and familiar it’s almost become a parody of itself.
Throughout the play’s 80-plus well-paced minutes, Sullivan nimbly moves from character to character as the play weaves in and out of scenes lifted directly from the film, interspersed with observations, asides and bits of trivia.
Quite honestly, his performance alone is worth the price of admission. While Sullivan offers a solid interpretation of Jimmy Stewart’s classic George Bailey character, he flat-out nails mean, old Mr. Potter, the town’s richest man and George Bailey’s nemesis, whom he plays with pitch-perfect cantankerousness.
Here’s the thing. While “It’s a Wonderful Life” is now generally considered among the greatest movies of all time, it wasn’t a huge hit at the time of release. True, it did receive several Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture and Best Actor (Jimmy Stewart claimed it was the favorite role of his entire career) — but it was shut out at the Oscars and barely broke even at the box office. Ironically, this allowed its copyright to expire, which turned it into a Christmas staple by enabling constant airing every December throughout the 70s and 80s.
Few would argue about the film’s sentimentality; even in 1946, some critics called it “Capra-corn.”
In this way, any production of “This Wonderful Life” deals with an issue of source material. Either audience members are going to find it cheeseball or they won’t. Of course, people like cheeseballs around the holidays, even if they don’t particularly care for them any other time of the year. Just ask Hickory Farms.
Another potential sticking point: even though Murray’s script points out and pokes fun of its anachronistic feel-goodedness, this can make the humor feels like an inside joke. But again, who hasn’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life?” If, like my wife, you haven’t — especially if, again like my wife, you refuse to watch anything in black and white — here’s your chance to see it in color.
Of course, there are those who absolutely LOVE “It’s a Wonderful Life.” People who know the words to “Buffalo Gals;” people who get misty when George lassos the moon (see what I mean by cheeseball?); people who incorporate “Zuzu’s petals” into their username/password combinations. I am not one of these people and yet I legitimately enjoyed “This Wonderful Life” on many different levels, not the least of which because in Frank Capra’s universe, the evil rich guy never wins.
Maybe next year Perseverance will do a one-man “Die Hard.” Personally, that’s my favorite Christmas movie. James Sullivan as both Detective John McClane AND criminal mastermind Hans Gruber? Now that’s what I call theatre.