I know this firsthand because I’ve never especially loved the holiday classic — for a point of reference “Gremlins” and “Tangerine” are my two favorite Christmas movies —but found plenty to like in the show by Steve Murray.
“This Wonderful Life,” which is available to stream through Christmas Day, is the rare effort that successfully attempts to have its cake and eat it, too. It’s both a somewhat reverent one-actor adaptation of the Frank Capra seasonal staple and a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the show.
Rather than undercutting the treacly plot, pithy asides and narration delivered by Wesley Mann, who also portrays the characters and actions he’s commenting on, help ground a story that hinges in large part on a wing-seeking guardian angel. Plus, it makes some of the movie’s subtext into plain old text.
At one memorable point, Mann notes how much of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is driven by money.
“Discuss,” he instructs the audience in a fourth-wall-breaking bit that does prompt at least some thought about the intersection of commercialism, capitalistic predation and the holiday season.
Mann, under the co-direction of Leslie Ishii, his wife and Perseverance Theatre’s artistic director, and Josh Lowman, who added some digital flourishes to the production, does an excellent job of selling the material.
Most impressively — to me, at least — he walks the tight rope of a Jimmy Stewart impression while steering clear of plummeting into Don Knotts territory.
The frenetic pace created by the one-man nature of the piece highlight elements of the plot that have led to “It’s A Wonderful Life’s” endurance while redeeming some elements of the movie that have seemed hoary and saccharine for decades.
Hearing George Bailey’s plight laid out in plain narration underscores his dark Christmas Eve of the soul in a way that lends gravity to the character’s internal struggle. He’s the small-town, middle-aged man at the center of every essay about economic anxiety transposed 70 years into the past, and that’s made almost uncomfortably clear as each blow is dealt.
Additionally, the vaudevillian energy required to fill roles occupied by dozens of actors in the film allows Mann to hang a lampshade on the creaky characterization of some of the central characters in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
When played with zeal and cartoonish energy by Mann, characters that are basically archetypes of a big bad and selfless punching bag make a lot more sense. The show even gets to call out the inexplicable number of “ethnic stereotypes” who reside in Bedford Falls in a way that allows a “that’s a spicy-ah meat ball” accent work to squeak by.
I’m unsure how well the material would work for an audience that has never seen the original “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but “This Wonderful Life” can land with both folks who unironically love the old film and people who never quite cottoned to it.
For the uninitiated, the two works would make a great double feature.
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.