It’s not often that one gets to sit down with an angel and a devil in person, but recently Goodspeed Musicals provided the next best thing: a chance to meet and interview the actors playing such polar opposites in their current production of the musical, “A Wonderful Life,” based on the beloved motion picture that’s always a holiday favorite, Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Playing now, November 13, and just recently extended through December 6 at Goodspeed Musicals’ flagship Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, “A Wonderful Life” provides two excellent roles for veteran Broadway actors Ed Dixon, as the manipulative, unscrupulous bank owner Mr. Potter, and Frank Vlastnik as the woebegone angel-in-training, Clarence, on his last shot at getting his wings.
“Potter is such an iconic role,” Dixon explains, acknowledging the challenge in following in the footsteps of the 1946 film’s Potter, the legendary actor Lionel Barrymore. “He definitely stands out as a terrible character in a play about some wonderful people who care for each other in some wonderful ways.”
But the character actor is not willing to just let Potter be the caricature that many people think he is from their memories of the film. After all, Dixon has crafted a broad array of interesting and layered performances from the many iconic roles he has played in his lengthy career. Just this summer, for example, he played the Innkeeper in “Man of La Mancha” at the Barrington Stage Company and Colonel Pickering in “My Fair Lady” at the Cape Playhouse, after having played Mr. Doolittle in any number of previous productions of the Lerner and Lowe musical. And just before that, he spent part of the spring polishing his own one-person play, “George,” based on the life and tragic death of his friend and mentor, the Tony-winning actor George Rose, at a fully-staged workshop at Connecticut’s Sharon Playhouse, a role he will repeat just after the first of the year at Virginia’s Signature Theatre.
“I’m sure that people are familiar with the character,” he continues speaking of Potter, “and if not, even before you lay eyes on him in the show, he is described as a vampire. So one expects a bit of unpleasantness. Fortunately, he’s not quite a Judge Turpin (the truly villainous and criminal character Dixon has previously played in a production of “Sweeney Todd”) who, after the show, I felt like wanting to take a shower.”
Instead, Dixon does not see Potter as a devil-like character, but instead as a shrewd businessman who clearly takes advantage of situations presented to him. After all, he says, Potter is one of only two characters in the play who can smoothly maneuver through the depression and saves the major bank in town. The other character is, of course, the heroic George Bailey who saves his family’s Savings and Loan business. That doesn’t stop Potter from adhering to strict banking policies and to such manipulations as trying to hire George away from the family business in Potter’s big musical number in which he, in his truly sly devilish moment, demonstrates to George what type of comfortable, glamourous lifestyle he and his wife could lead if only George accepted Potter’s offer.
Similarly, Vlastnik explores the various depths of the aspiring angel Clarence’s character, though earnest and good-hearted, also possesses some flaws and even some darkness that has obviously prevented him from earning his wings thus far. The actor has envisioned Clarence as, he says, “a Chaplin-esque sort of character. He’s in a somewhat threadbare suit, with high water pants.”
“What I am trying to convey,” Vlastnik continues, “is that helping George Bailey is really my last chance. Clarence has been an angel for 200 years and has yet to get his wings.” He’s even invented a loose sort of back story for his character, that in Clarence’s past he may have had a very personal experience with suicide, “otherwise,” he says, “why would he be assigned the task of talking George out of his desperation?”
Vlastnik especially enjoys the part of the show in which he has to show George what the world would be like had George never been born. “Clarence has to be more ingenious to convince George,” the actor states, even to the point of becoming more direct and malevolent as his demonstration continues, so that George can’t ignore what Clarence is showing him and thus understand his importance to all the people in Bedford Falls, New York.
He’s also pleased that he gets to show off his song and dance chops in a show-stopping number at the top of Act Two called “Wings,” in which Clarence, with a chorus of angelic back-up singers, gets to imagine what it will be like once he becomes a full-fledged angel and finally earns his wings. The Wesleyan University graduate has appeared several times on Broadway, in “A Year with Frog and Toad,” “The Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Big,” as well as off-Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Saturday Night.” He was most recently seen in Connecticut in the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Room Service,” for which he received the 2014 Connecticut Critics’ Circle Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. His song and dance credits even include co-authoring a book on the subject, “Broadway Musicals,” which just happened to be perched prominently on a bookshelf in Goodspeed’s library during the interview, which Vlastnik proudly spotted from across the room.
“A Wonderful Life” gives audiences a chance to see these two talented actors at work, even though they don’t share a scene. But their presence is felt throughout the show, complementing the performances of the other principals and entire cast. There is still plenty of time to catch them prior to the December 6 closing. For information and tickets, contact the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the theatre’s website at www.goodspeed.org.