Life may not be wonderful for George Bailey in Bedford Falls, New York, as he sacrifices his dreams for the good of his family and community, but be assured that he’s not shortchanged by the Goodspeed Musicals’ production of the musical “A Wonderful Life,” that opened last week on the Opera House stage in East Haddam, where it is scheduled to run through November 29.
Based, of course, on the beloved Frank Capra classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the musical features book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by the late Joe Raposo. Harnick, the 2014 recipient of the Goodspeed Award for Outstanding Contribution to Musical Theatre, is enjoying another round of popularity as two of musicals he wrote with Jerry Bock are being remounted on Broadway this year, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “She Loves Me,” while the final Harnick-Bock collaboration, “The Rothschilds,” has been revised and reimagined as a musical called “Rothschild and Son,” now playing off-Broadway at the York Theatre Company.
“A Wonderful Life” adheres very closely, perhaps too closely, to the story seen in the film, as it chronicles the life of George Bailey from 1928 to 1945. George is the eldest son of the owner of local Savings and Loan, that operates as a lifeline for area residents more than just a profit-seeking business. When his father unexpectedly dies, George has to take over running the bank postponing his plans for the future. Circumstances keep him from leaving Bedford Falls and he marries happily and has three lovely children. But he falls prey to the machinations of Mr. Potter, the unscrupulous owner of the bank down the street and believes he has disappointed his family and the town. As he prepares to end his own life, an angel with somewhat of a spotty history—Clarence—is dispatched to get George to change his mind.
This musical was first presented professionally in 1986 and has since enjoyed a number of productions at various regional theaters, especially during the holidays. It has never made it to Broadway, not even as a special holiday production, though there was an one night Actors’ Fund benefit about ten years ago. Because the film has become such a beloved, familiar, enchanted holiday fable that already features well-meaning angels, a hissable villian and an adorable child named Zu-Zu who gets to utter the film’s most memorable line, it is hard to imagine what more charm could be added to this tale that had been described at its opening as overly sentimental and “Capri-corn.”
Despite the best efforts of the Goodspeed production team, they have not been able to spin gold out of corn. “A Wonderful Life” infrequently reaches the remarkable heights achieved by some of their recent revivals, such as “Guys and Dolls,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Hello, Dolly,” “Showboat,” “Mame,” and last fall’s discovery, “Holiday Inn.” The problem is in part a book that exists to demonstrate the main character’s failures and disappointments, which hardly leaves a lot to sing and dance about. There’s also the issue of audience anticipation: we’re familiar with George Bailey’s travails, and are anxious to get to the really dramatic parts of his story, as when he sees what life would be like if he had never been born followed by the resilience of his faith in people when he learns what all the townspeople have done for him.
Even with one of Goodspeed’s favorite choreographers, Parker Esse, on the scene, there’s a surfeit of great production numbers for him to sink his teeth—or the ensemble’s feet—into. He does excel at what he has to work with—an opening tour through downtown Bedford Falls, a wedding sequence, a graduation scene and a splendid number called “Wings” that wisely opens Act II, having been interpolated from the middle of the first act to provide a rousing start to the second.
This marks director Michael Perlman’s debut at the Goodspeed, who has managed to sustain a cinematic feel to the material so that it really never bogs down, but moves along purposefully, with Brian Prather’s clever scenic design employing certain key elements that can easily be brought on and off stage to readily signify specific locations. Perlman, who is also an acclaimed playwright (his “From White Plains” received a GLAAD Media honor), has also obtained some quality performances from his leads who generate the most interest in the show.
Duke Lafoon puts his own mark on the character of George, so that there’s nothing left to remind you of Jimmy Stewart, although there is occasionally a momentary shock to hear a familiar quote from the film to not sound like Jimmy Stewart is saying it. What’s neat about Lafoon’s performance is that he lets George grow from an adolescent sharing code words and secret foot shakes with his friends into a leader who can think on his feet when life throws curve balls at him. Lafoon is particularly impressive in a scene in which he has to depict George pulling all his wits together in order to prevent a run on the savings and loan during the depression. He has a very good singing voice that solos on George’s frequent prayers, but demonstrates it capabilities in some marvelous duets with Kirsten Scott, who plays his love interest-future wife, Mary.
Scott possesses a genuinely dynamic voice that provides certainty and clarity to her character, defining Mary as an honorable, patient woman who is confident in knowing what she wants and unwavering in her support for her husband. She has two marvelous solos, “Not What I Expected” and “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You,” that showcase her singing and her acting, which, by the way, she manages to keep from getting too maudlin or sentimental.
Ed Dixon, a much-in-demand character actor, is superb as Potter, playing him not as an outright villain but more as a relentless businessman keeping his eyes on every opportunity and quickly spotting the weaknesses of his rivals in order to try to exploit them. He and Lafoon play off each other well during their multiple confrontations, which come across as very believable, while leading the audience to wonder just who is going to end up on top in each situation.
Frank Vlastnik plays Clarence as an eager, but awkward angel in training, who despite his good intentions has yet to earn his wings due to what appears to be a mixture of shyness and profound trepidation. Vlastnik makes an endearing figure out of Clarence, who in Vlastnik’s performance can seem almost child-like at times in his naivety and confusion over human behavior. When Vlastnik’s Clarence tells George that he can relate to wanting to throw himself in front of a train, there’s the slightest hint of something more onerous in Clarence’s background. Vlastnik does manage to win the audience’s hearts in his big second act opener, “Wings,” so well staged that it sets the musical on to a more exciting trajectory.
Among the other noteworthy performances are Josh Franklin’s ‘hail fellow well met’ school friend, Sam Wainwright, who enjoys successes George can only dream of, Michael Medeiros’ Uncle Billy, a good natured alcoholic who realizes he can never outshine his brother, Tom, or his nephew, George, in the savings and loan, Bethe B. Austin’s Milly Bailey, George’s long suffering but good-spirited mother, and Logan James Hall’s Harry Bailey, George’s war hero brother.
George McDaniel has some fine moments as Clarence’s heavenly mentor, Matthew, as well as local restaurateur, Mr. Martini. At times, Clarence and Matthew will segue into side characters within Matthew’s depiction of George’s backstory, which is a staging conceit I wish Perlman had used a bit more, especially since Clarence is off stage a lot during the first act. Perlman—and Lafoon—do a terrific job with the “unborn” sequence, that tidily includes the various characters to whom we have been introduced throughout the evening. And though the last part of the musical takes place at Christmas time, there seemed to be insufficient holiday atmosphere. (Spoiler alert: any snow is saved until the very, very, very end, probably for safety and damage reasons). But more decorations at the savings and loan or in the Bailey household or more hints of winter, say, more hints of snow around the pivotal railroad trestle, might put the audience in more of a holiday mood by the end.
Jennifer Caprio’s costumes cover decades in Bedford Falls’ life as well as multiple seasons, yet they all seem spot-on and lovely to admire. Even the costumes in the “unborn” sequence take on a dark, defeated tone, to match the reality that George must face about what the town would be like without him. Scott Bolman’s lighting captures seasonal differences and is able to create the necessary chaos on the train trestle as Clarence finally jumps into action. Michael O’Flaherty once again directs the uncommonly fine Goodspeed orchestra, performing Dan DeLange’s orchestrations, created specifically for these musicians.
Attending “A Wonderful Life” is like spending two and a half hours with a familiar story, but seen through different eyes. It is by no means Sheldon Harnick’s or Joe Raposo’s best musical, and the score has really no ‘knock ‘em out of the ball park’ numbers. But when the music does succeed, it is most likely due to the performances of those singing, who instill the necessary life into what are essentially non-descript numbers. It’s understandable why this show has never really made it to Broadway and not seen too often on regional stages, and why in fact, a radio style version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been the one performed more frequently around the country. By focusing on one man’s life in a small American town and exuding the home spun values that Capra hoped to provide to a war weary audience in 1946, the show resembles, especially in some of the numbers and staging in the first act, a musical from the 1950’s, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Allegro,” recently revived in two very different limited-run productions in New York City, which similarly followed a young man growing up in small town Americana.
For tickets and information, call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.878.8668 or visit the theater’s website at www.goodspeed.org.