Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Wonderful Life rings everyone's Christmas chime

N.BBLR gives readers a Quicky version that features three sections of just a few paragraphs that sum up my overall take on the show. Readerwho want more back-story & production details can read the expanded review in the Wordy version that follows.


Quicky Version

From the footlights :  Every North American and their dog has seen the Frank Capra classic movie It's A Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. And who doesn't remember Zuzu Bailey's famous show closer : "Look, Daddy. Teacher says 'Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!'" Press materials tell us more than 80,000 people in years gone by have seen ACT's earlier productions of Philip Grecian's adaptation of the Capra film. (He has also done a radio theatre version.) So after a three year hiatus, IAWL returns to the Granville Island stage to toggle opposite the song-&-dance version of A Christmas Story playing up the block at the Stanley. While many of its actors reprise earlier performances for ACT, a host of newbies join the cast in this ever-popular Christmastime script.

Acting pin-spots : Bob Frazer as George Bailey vied all evening long with his heavenly counterpart, lit.& fig., Bernard Cuffling as Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody for the nod as audience favourite. But a terrific turn as the dottery addlepated Uncle Billy by David Marr as well. Lindsey Angell pulled off a sexy but sad Violet Bick, tartly done. As the villain Potter, Alec Willows was devilishly dislikable, while Irene Karas Loeper channeled Lily Tomlin to a T as Tilly the ditzy switchboard operator at Bailey's.

Who gonna like : As stated from the top, this play works particularly well because almost every breathing soul in N.A. knows the Frank Capra film by heart. Were this a fresh new script for 2015 audiences, well it just might be viewed more as simply the "sentimental hogwash" Ph.D. candidate Daniel Sullivan talked about. The American Dream shill, many argue, is myth. That's why the dream isn't dead : it never was, some say. But no Boomers (self included) are likely to buy into that view. Want a cleverly-wrought stage version of a film classic I know you and your family will watch on NBC sometime this month? The ACT production is timely, telling, and touching : it grabs the eye and the heart with age-old truths. And it isn't on a 55" LED t.v. screen in your media room. It's on stage and plops the story directly into your lap. 


Wordy Version

From the footlights :  Every North American and their dog has seen the Frank Capra classic movie It's A Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. And who doesn't remember Zuzu Bailey's famous show closer : "Look, Daddy. Teacher says 'Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!'" Press materials tell us more than 80,000 people in years gone by have seen ACT's earlier productions of Philip Grecian's adaptation of the Capra film. (He has also done a radio theatre version.) So after a three year hiatus, IAWL return to the Granville Island stage to toggle opposite the song-&-dance version of A Christmas Story playing up the block at the Stanley. While many of its actors reprise earlier performances for ACT, a host of newbies join the cast in this ever-popular Christmastime script.

Re-cap of the Capra story:  Based on Philip Van Doren Stern's 1939 short story "The Greatest Gift", IAWL is plunked into a fictional town called Bedford Falls, apparently modeled after Senneca Falls, NY. Small-town America in the late 1940's. Post-war mania sets in. Folks scrabble to start families, buy cars, and own their first homes. They borrow from local lending institutions called "building and loan associations" that are like privately-owned credit unions. They go to church, believe in helping their neighbours, are well-meaning good-hearted souls. Although he dreams of world travel and creating iconic architecture for the world's great cities, George Bailey (Bob Frazer) has had to take over the family business when his father strokes out from stress in his 50's. No world travel for this young man, now, nor college : at 20-ish he takes over the company reins from loveable but inept Uncle Billy (David Marr).

Dreamer George, thrust into the harness of "real life" right out of high school, hasn't lost his romantic urges. When his dad's nemesis Henry F. Potter (Alec Willows) threatens to kill Bailey Brothers Building & Loan from an $8,000 loan payment default due to mysteriously-disappeared company funds, George ditches his wife-&-family on Christmas Eve and -- in the movie -- roars off, gets drunk, fights with a neighbour in a saloon, cracks up his car then flees to the local river bridge with full-on suicide thoughts. He looks up and pleads to God woefully, hopelessly.  

Enter wannabe full-patch angel Clarence Odbody (Bernard Cuffling). He's been sent by Senior Angel Joseph to save George and see if he can earn his 1st-class angel's wings in the bargain. "Maybe it would have been better if I'd never been born!" George agonizes. Clarence grants George this "wish". He walks George back through the time he's been on earth. Shows him what Bedford Falls would have been like had George never lived. Only then does George realize his "boring" life just helping folks get started as young adults has been truly rewarding, to them, to the town, to George and his family. All's well that ends well.

Why folks love this story : In a Humanitas article entitled "Sentimenal Hogwash?a decade back, doctoral candidate Daniel J. Sullivan puts out that Capra's production might not have done much more than simply to have "manufactured the perfect feel-good holiday vehicle." His essay expands : "The satisfaction the film provokes makes it easy for audiences and critics alike to consider it a puff piece, a sweet and superficial sop to our nostalgia for 'times gone by', heightened as it is during the holiday season when the modern American is most in need of respite from the wearing pursuit of mammon. For many, the film is no more than a cinematic candy cane, a Christmas treat that requires no assembly and induces no hangovers."

Sullivan spends the ensuing 23 pages of his thesis quoting Plato, wise old Job from the Bible as well as philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbes ["...the life of man : solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"] trying to convince readers otherwise, however. "Some critics might interpret the cascading elation depicted in the film's final scenes as a cheap appeal to modern man's flabby weakness for contrived, feel-good endings. Such an interpretation would fail to appreciate that the true source of elation lies not in George Bailey's miraculous salvation, but in the realization that true meaning in life lies within the humble grasp of each and every one of us."

Sullivan had it right on both counts i.m.o. Charles Dickens mourned in Barnaby Rudge that "the shadows of our desires stand between us and our better angels". And so it is with us in the secular 21st century first world : we each recognize we have the potential for ourselves to let our better angels come into play. Daily. Moment by moment. To act more genuinely. Emblemised by such values that were promoted when I was in short pants : as a Boy Scout I pledged each week at our Troop 5 meetings in the Presbyterian Church basement to be more "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent". [Scout Pledge from memory JSYK, not google'd...]. In an age when ISIL assassins and suicide bombers commit mass murder of civilians at Paris cafes & concert halls, there's another word implicit in the Stern / Capra story : hope. We are called on, emphatically, to not let disastrous misfortune thrown in our faces dictate to us a negative and cynical view of life.

That said, we have also been trained by movies and t.v. to like feel-good endings to phantasy stories, too. To imagine an idyllic world where constant strife and striving and grasping at brass rings or straws or avoiding catastrophe are not the norm. Where presto-change-o! all is sweetness and light.

And so we love the show IAWL because it is a combination of vinegar and treacle, but mostly treacle. We want the good guys to win, not the bad guys. Especially at Christmas. And in IAWL they do, big-time.

How it's all put together :  The ACT production is cleverly wrought. A full-screen backdrop upstage provides projected film clips -- mostly stills, but some slo-mo runs, too -- taken from the original Capra black-&-white film. In front of the screen Ted Roberts has created mini-sets on rollers that the actors propel on and off as needed : Gower's Drug Store and soda fountain; the Bailey Brothers business; Potter's office; the bank; George's childhood front porch; his family home at 320 Sycamore Street. From on high a stage-width snowy railroad bridge drops down, the "suicide bridge" George eventually dives off of to rescue Clarence from drowning. Scenes performed by the movie's 46 characters are compressed, deleted or simply hinted at on the Granville Island homey stage by the 16 actors in Grecian's live theatre version. To help tie it all together, the blend of film footage with the on-stage scenes creates a sequencing that fits together quite tightly.

What the show brings to the stage : Live performance always puts skin in the game that two-dimensional film -- or even 3-D film for that matter -- simply cannot. Real people roaring hither-&-yon across a set, descending the theatre steps from above or breaking plane onto the audience floor, these actions help to plop the story directly into peoples' laps. Mixing the two media meanwhile -- particularly with such a famous and well-loved script -- works well indeed. While the blend of projection design and real-time acting is not as intricate as last year's Helen Lawrence, it is still cleverly wrought stuff. The phantasy sequence of the imagined "Pottersville" speakeasies and gambling joints and pleasure palaces was particularly good film footage created for this production. Marsha Sibthorpe's perennial lighting finesse coupled crisply with Jamie Nesbitt's film projections.

Acting pin-spots : Bob Frazer as George Bailey vied all evening long with his heavenly counterpart, lit.& fig., Bernard Cuffling as Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody for the nod as audience favourite. But a terrific turn as the dottery addlepated Uncle Billy by David Marr as well. Lindsey Angell pulled off a sexy but sad Violet Bick, tartly done. As the villain Potter, Alec Willows was devilishly dislikable, while Irene Karas Loeper channeled Lily Tomlin to a T as Tilly the ditzy switchboard operator at Bailey's.

Who gonna like : As stated from the top, this play works particularly well because almost every breathing soul in N.A. knows the Frank Capra film by heart. Were this a fresh new script for 2015 audiences, well it just might be viewed more as simply the "sentimental hogwash" Ph.D. candidate Daniel Sullivan talked about. The American Dream shill, many argue, is myth. That's why the dream isn't dead : it never was, some say. But no Boomers (self included) are likely to buy into that view. Want a cleverly-wrought stage version of a film classic I know you and your family will watch on NBC sometime this month? The ACT production is timely, telling, and touching : it grabs the eye and the heart with age-old truths. And it isn't on a 55" LED t.v. screen in your media room. It's on stage and plops the story directly into your lap. 

Particulars :  Script adaptation from the 1946 Frank Capra film by Philip Grecian.  At ACT's Granville Island stage.  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  On through Boxing Day.  Schedule information & tickets via www.ArtsCentre.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Dean Paul Gibson.  Assistant Director Angela Beaulieu.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Original Music / Sound Designer Neil Weisensel.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager April Starr.  Assistant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tessa Gunn. 

Performers :  Lindsey Angell (Violet Bick / Mrs. Thompson).  Eileen Barrett (Mother Bailey).  Ted Cole (Rieneman / Gowar / Man at Bank / Carter).  Bernard Cuffling (Clarence).  Bob Frazer (George Bailey).  Emily Grabovac (Young Violet / Janie Bailey).  Kyle Jespersen (Harry / Peter Bailey / Ernie / Tom).  Alistair C.W. Leong (Young Harry Bailey / Tommy Bailey).  Jennifer Lines (Mary Bailey).  Irene Karas Loeper (Tilly).  David Marr (Uncle Billy).  John Murphy (Bert / Ed).  Taylor Dianne Robinson (Young Mary / Tilly's niece).  Sylvie Odette Thomas (Zuzu).  Toby Verchere (Young George Bailey / Peter Bailey).  Alec Willows (Henry Potter).

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