Theatre Unleashed Does “Wonderful Life” Right

Frank Capra’s film It’s a  Wonderful Life has been a Christmas tradition since its 1946 debut.  Each December, folks gather by the millions to watch George Bailey battle a Scrooge-like millionaire and save the common folk of Bedford Falls.

In 1996, playwright Joe Landry, who’d adapted this heartwarmer to the stage a few years before, took a new angle: The film’s story is being presented as a live radio play. This version works (and trims set changes to zero); it’s been playing around the country ever since.

But there’s a fatal flaw in Landry’ design. He starts with five radio actors arriving at the studio, but once the broadcast is underway, they disappear. It’s all George and Mary, Clarence and Mr. Potter and the rest — and when their story’s done, the lights go out.

A half-dozen years ago, an LA theatre artist saw this flaw and decided to fix it.  And Jim Martyka’s It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is now a beloved fixture at NoHo’s Theatre Unleashed.

(front) Spencer Cantrell, Courtney Sara Bell; (rear) Steve Peterson, Molly Moran, Ariana Weiss, Caroline Sharp.

(front) Spencer Cantrell, Courtney Sara Bell; (rear) Steve Peterson, Molly Moran, Ariana Weiss, Caroline Sharp.

Deservedly so. Martyka fills his radio studio with actors, station execs, a man who wanders in off the street, and three female employees who just happen to mimic the Andrews Sisters spot-on.
It’s a bit madcap — especially on TU’s small (but versatile) stage.

Martyka also gives us plentiful interaction among these off-air folks — even while the show’s on the air — and a frame story that nicely echoes the film’s plot. His version is a good idea brought to fullness.

And the Unleashed troupe performs it with professionalism and gusto. Director Jenn Scuderi Crafts manages the scrambling baker’s dozen of characters without traffic jams, and stage manager Beth Scorzato whizzes gracefully through the cues (including deliberate errors, not so easy to pull off).

Among the actors, Spencer Cantrell has a huge assignment — station owner/manager Michael, drafted at the last second to play George Bailey. In both roles, he keeps a manful hand on the throttle while letting us see he’s not  at all sure where he’s going.  As Michael’s long-suffering partner Melanie, pushed to the mic to play Mary, Courtney Sara Bell holds the mayhem together impressively (but when does she not impress?).

Andy Justus, as a vain matinee idol, wonderfully evokes Clark Gable, subsuming the ego into his on-air characters, then revealing a warm, vulnerable side. Sammi Lappin and Margaret Glaccum, two actors of profound intelligence, hide it skillfully in creating, respectively, a clueless ingenue and an inept sound artist. Jennifer Ashe’s diva sweetly rasps our nerves, then slowly lets her armor down. And Graydon Schlichter (a bottle-bound character actor), Steve Peterson (a self-admiring voice actor) and Lee Pollero (an over-eager beginner) brush their comic types with individual colors.

Carey Matthews’ confused interloper is a genial clown, and the three singing staffers — Ariana Weiss, Molly Moran, and Caroline Sharp — provide constant period music while creating distinct characters (despite having very few lines).

What’s more, the whole company has fun telling the story — one of this show’s most engaging features. For a holiday entertainment full of laughter and sentiment, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is at the top of the tree.
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It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, adapted by Jim Martyka, directed by Jenn Scuderi Crafts.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through December 18th.

Tickets:  <www.theatreunleashed.com>  or  (818) 849-4039.