“It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” sparkles
Next Act Theatre uses the Foley sound-effects tradition and layered performances for a "wonderful" show.
Don’t mess with It’s a Wonderful Life. I hold it as a sacred family Christmas viewing tradition. But Friday night, I smiled through Next Act Theatre’s stage adaptation, It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show. I got the warm fuzzies at all the same beloved moments.
Next Act sets the show in an old-time radio studio decorated for Christmas. In the background, snow falls gently on the 1957 Milwaukee skyline. A cast of six will read all the movie’s parts in what is to be WNAT’s last live radio drama before the format changes to all music, all the time.
This tight-knit group of radio actors has worked together for years, but television has made them obsolete. They crack jokes as they prepare for their last show. They gargle, sing scales, practice tongue-twisters and fiddle with myriad noise-makers in a nearly musical warm-up.
They think they’re getting ready for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, their traditional Christmas Eve broadcast. James (Norman Moses) enters at the eleventh hour, clearly nursing a hangover, to discover that the station director has commanded a last-minute change to Wonderful Life. His old flame, Judy (Mary MacDonald Kerr), a former WNAT employee, has dropped in to visit. She gets roped into performing.
The team scrambles to find scripts and arrange the right sound effects and struggles to find the show’s rhythm. But they’d performed Wonderful Life five years prior, with Judy in the mix. So they have a chance to make George Bailey’s emotional story work, and they soon find their footing.
After establishing all these radio conceits, Next Act’s performance takes off as a near-perfect representation of the old movie. The subtle yet always-present radio touches paint vivid mental images.
Jack (Jack Forbes Wilson) did an incredible job as pianist/organist and played a pitch-perfect Clarence, George’s guardian angel. Bo (Bo Johnson) served as Harry Bailey, Nick the bartender, Sam Wainwright and Ernie the cab driver, but really shined as grumpy old Mr. Potter. (He nailed Lionel Barrymore’s voice.) Sophie (Debra Babich) took over the roles of Joseph, Violet, Mrs. Bailey and ZuZu. Stan (David Cecsarini) served as Foley artist, Bert the cop, Martini, Mr. Gower and Mr. Bailey. James (Moses) and Judy (Kerr) star as George and Mary.
The cast did an amazing job moving around the stage, covering each other’s posts as they took turns at the microphones toward the front of the stage. The choreography and stage direction were seamless. The actors layered actors playing actors playing characters beautifully and clearly.
They tossed in some Milwaukee-based humor, notably in singing jingles for sponsors Usinger’s Sausage and Blatz Beer. Comedy aside, this bunch can really harmonize. These were refreshing moments of sheer talent and teamwork.
The cast sang Auld Lang Syne and my heart fell apart. Is Christmas here yet?
It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show runs through Dec. 9 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets and further information, visit the company’s website or call the box office, 414 278-0765.