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It's something akin to stepping into a transporter.
When we enter the theater at North Raleigh's Arts & Creative Theatre, we are transported across time and space to New York City, circa 1955, where we become part of a "live studio audience" in Studio A of a nationally aired radio station, WBFR. We have come this snowy Christmas Eve night, to "see" and hear the performance of a radio play, a weekly occurrence here at this "Playhouse of the Air." Tonight's special Christmas performance will be It's a Wonderful Life, as adapted from the movie made just eight years ago by Frank Capra.
As the houselights dim we are greeted by the show's usual host, Freddie Fillmore (Steve Migdon), who greets us and lets us know a little of what is about to happen. He then introduces us to the performers who will be doing tonight's show. Playing the role of George Bailey is Jake Laurents (Christian O'Neal); playing Mary is "Miss Ohio 1943," Sally Applewhite (Rhonda Lemon); performing multiple roles tonight are Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood (Tony Hefner) and Lana Sherwood (Bonnie Webster), and, of course, narrating as well as doing several characters of his own is Fillmore himself. Each enters from side doors as announced and receives a script. Then these five radio personalities face us in front of their own mikes, behind which are neatly arranged armchairs and tables with glasses of water, so that those who are not currently speaking can rest their voices.
Freddy tells us that the start of the show is imminent, as the show's producer (Alicia Burnette Whitley) counts us down to "live air," and the broadcast begins. Once on the air, the producer is joined by a sound effects technician (Del Flack), and the two provide all the necessary sound effects needed in the show, from the sound of a guy belting George in the jaw, to that of doors slamming, wind blowing, and the river waters splashing! These two seem to be doing the hardest work, as they are forever in motion, making sure that the right sound comes at precisely the right moment in time.
Also present, just offstage, is the support musician, pianist "Sammy Second." I put this name in quotes because that is the name as it sounded like Freddie announced it; unfortunately there is absolutely no mention of the artist in the program! Sammy keeps up a running undercurrent of music, very much like the pianists who accompanied silent movies so long ago.
Once started, the show runs headlong without a break, including two "commercials," one for Bremel Hair Tonic, a long-time sponsor of the show, and one for "Dux toilet bar"-soap – both of which are accompanied by their own jingle, sung in four-part harmony by the cast.
Once the actual "show" gets going, it is easy to sit back, relax, and – if you close your eyes – you can imagine you are at home in your easy chair, listening to a big table radio back in 1955 as these folks "read" It's a Wonderful Life. But I don't recommend it; if you do, you are liable to miss the many intricacies of what goes on onstage as the show progresses, who must move where, who joins whom at which mike, and the subtle but nuanced interactions of these five radio personalities as they interact with each other. This is the subtext of the show; it is easy to suppose that these guys do this for a living, and see each other every day, and broadcast every night, including tonight, Christmas Eve. So smoothly do these actors play their roles that one might believe (for example) that the sound technician has been doing this for years, and that making the sound of a body falling into water, or of a train passing, blowing its whistle, is mere child's play for him.
The show is a family affair. Director/producer Yvonne Anderson is joined by Michael Anderson as sound designer and Elizabeth Anderson as costume designer. Also, it is interesting to note, as an aside, that actors Christian O'Neal and Rhonda Lemon are husband and wife.
This has become NRACT's perennial Christmas offering, and it is a true classic. It is a joy to listen to these folks as if over the airwaves. It is even more fun to watch and see the intricacies of live broadcast as they take place onstage. If you are a fan of this classic Christmas movie, you will thoroughly enjoy this adaptation by Joe Landry, which is decidedly close to the film script. You might even be able to conjure up an image of James Stewart and Donna Reed as they perform. But neither is necessary to enjoy this charming production. It is a trip back to yesteryear and a glimpse of what might have actually happened on one snowy Christmas Eve in New York, so many years ago. If your Christmas is one that brings you a healthy dose of nostalgia, then this is the show for you. It comes highly recommended!
It's A Wonderful Life: Radio Show continues through Sunday, December 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.