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Arts and Entertainment

Springfield Little Theatre Performs "It's A Wonderful Life--A Live Radio Play"

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Little Theatre)
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The beloved American holiday classic "It's A Wonderful Life," the story of idealistic George Bailey who learns that his life really has positively impacted everyone around him, comes to life as a “live” 1940s radio broadcast in Springfield Little Theatre's holiday production. It through December 13 at the Landers Theatre, 311 E. Walnut, with limited seating availability, and as an online stream.  Jamie Bower, who directed the production, joined us on KSMU’s “Arts News.”                                                                            

The production opened Thursday night, and Bower said  “the actors are really excited to finally get to do it in front of an audience." Note that the actors onstage are NOT wearing face masks (although the audience is required to do so). "We set out from the beginning to block this show so that they (the actors) all remain six feet apart. We have five microphones. We are staging this in a 1940s radio studio. So it is a 'live radio broadcast'--and it actually IS live, because we stream, too!"  (More on the live stream below.)

Two months following the January 1947 theatrical release of the Frank Capra movie, CBS Radio's "Lux Radio Theatre" broadcast a one-hour condensed version of the story on March 10, 1947, featuring two of the film's original stars, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.  The "radio broadcast" adaptation for the stage used by Little Theatre is by Joe Landry. There has also been a stage musical version of "It's A Wonderful Life" by lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Joe Raposo; and Jamie Bower directed Springfield Little Theatre's production of the musical, with a cast of 32. "To find this radio version that (Joe Landry) did was a real treat." For this socially-distanced production, Bower says they were allowed to drop the number of actors down to nine.

"We have seven actors, seven 'radio performers,' and then we have a stage manager and a Foley artist." The latter is the sound-effects person, creating live sound effects onstage. "All of the vocal actors are doing such a great job at not only their main characters, but everybody is voicing multiple characters." Well, except for Christian Carroll, who plays George Bailey. He only has one other assignment in this show. "George has one extra voice that he does in our commercials, because we have two 1940s-style radio commercial spots within the show. But everybody is voicing multiple characters, which is really fun to watch. And of course the Foley pit is always fun to watch."

Jamie Bower mentioned the "Stage Manager," which is also a scripted character in the show, played by Michelle Sturm. "We've kind of built her in more. There weren't a lot of lines for her. Usually we have 30 minutes where the house opens before we actually start the show. However, our actors go ahead and take the stage 15 minutes before we start. They come in like they're coming in, getting ready for a radio broadcast, they hang up their coats. And the costumes just look great. Then Michelle actually has to 'save the show' in a couple of spots. It is very much a show-within-a-show. My co-director Marnie Irwin, she and I love to infuse humor wherever we can. So we like to get a little humor going in the background without overshadowing the beautiful story that they're telling."

The cast includes Rachel Haselhorst as Mary Hatch Bailey; Judy Luxton plays both mothers, Rose Bailey and Mrs. Hatch. Ron Seney plays Potter, Mr. Gower, and Joseph, the angel who supervises the angel without his wings, Clarence, played by Clayton Avery (Avery also plays George's brother Harry Bailey and various townspeople). Playing Violet Bick and other townspeople is Dusty Reasons Thomas. And Dave Bialik plays the announcer and, said Bower, "he is also, like, everybody else in the town, that poor guy--we put like 15 voices in his lap!" Kaleb Norman is the Foley artist.

I asked Jamie if the cast members understood what would be asked of them when they auditioned for this show. "I want to hope that they did. I know that some of them, it was quite a stretch to change their vocals so much to get a different character sound. But really, everybody stepped up to the challenge so wonderfully well. Ron Seney, who has done several live radio plays, he had some wonderful tips for us. So we really worked as an ensemble to put this show together, and everybody has just done a fantastic job. It's a tight show and they really do great at keeping that radio pace, with no dead air. And it's just a fun watch."

Each performance in the run is also available as a live stream. "We are so pleased to have the streaming option available to us. Eli Cunningham has done a great job--he's got HD cameras, and we have a live switcher. We're like our own little TV studio now. And it's great. We broadcast that out every night online."

If you choose to attend live at the Landers, Little Theatre will choose your seats for you; masks are required of all audience members, and concessions will NOT be available. In-person tickets range from $18 to $32. Not ready to come back to the theatre but still want to see the show? They'll present on online live stream each night of the show so you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. Tickets to receive the online stream are $28. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30, with 2:00pm matinees Saturdays  and Sundays, now through December 13.  Call 869-1334 or visit springfieldlittletheatre.org.