The Whole Backstage Theatre, in Guntersville, produced the perennial holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, late November and early December. If you knew someone in the cast, it was not to be missed, but otherwise, I would have suggested staying home and streaming the original movie instead. And that’s a big problem that this script will always have–the hugely famous source material of the movie. Everyone who came to see the play, had seen the movie. That said, Whole Backstage gave it a good effort, and the audience seemed to enjoy being reminded of the famous parts of the classic movie they all love.
We all know the story: a man whose life has not gone the way he planned, is now at a very rough time, and feels that he is worth more dead than alive. As he is about to commit suicide, an angel from heaven visits, and shows him what the world would have been like without him in it. He eventually realizes that he’s had “a wonderful life”. The tag, of course, is the famous line, “no man is a failure, who has friends”.
The director for this production, Diane Duboise, managed to get everyone on and off the stage without bumping into each other, and kept the sightlines clear for the audience, but didn’t quite manage to coax the heart of this story into view. Lines of cast members appear to be a popular tool, and while that does allow everyone in the cast to be seen by the audience, it fails to resemble reality–the “run on the bank”, in particular, was far too orderly for the mood at the start of the Great Depression. There was also, unfortunately, next to no chemistry between our romantic leads. That wasn’t helped, for example, by the iconic scene in which they are listening to their high school friend on the phone, who is telling them to put all their money into his company’s stock. In the movie, we only HEAR the friend, while we SEE the two leads listening on the same phone, and collapsing into kisses. That’s as it should be–the important part of the scene is the unspoken interaction between the leads, not the phone call. This stage version placed “Sam Wainwright”, the caller, on the stage. Anytime a character has lines, THAT is the person the audience will look at, which meant we completely missed watching what we were supposed to be focusing on. There are a few other small things, like George Bailey’s bad ear changing sides, and the use of the children as street carolers, which, while cute, brought the story to a screeching halt every time, without adding anything to the production. But most importantly, we missed the grand emotional journey in this story. We need to see the lead character, “George Bailey” descend into absolute hell, in order to feel joy at his final happy ending, and we missed both extremes of emotion.
The one real stand-out in the cast was Brian Waldrop, as the bad guy of the piece, “Mr. Potter”. Waldrop absolutely nailed his character, and was a joy to watch. The remainder of the actors did the best they could, even with some unfortunate casting decisions. This production is a bit difficult to cast, because a number of the characters have to play everything from high school youth to middle-aged. Usually, this means being consistent on the ages of the actors, one way or the other, so that in at least some of the scenes (usually the middle-aged ones), the actors actually look right together, and fit the scene. This production mixed things up, resulting in a number of scenes with a jumble of actor ages, compared with the supposed ages of the characters. Additionally, the large number of southern accents on the stage, while understandable, made it hard to believe the setting was upstate New York.
The sets were not up to the standard that Whole Backstage usually achieves. The painted drop of the Bailey street was very amateurish in execution, compared to the drop for downtown. A subtle, but important, touch, would have been to have the clock in the Building and Loan actually reflect the correct time, at least for key scenes. It was unfortunate to have lines referencing needing to stay open until 6 PM, when we can see the clock on the wall showing 6:10. The lighting served its primary purpose of illuminating the action, but failed to assist with the moods or establishing the time of day. A number of scenes are clearly supposed to be set at night, but we never saw that in the lighting.
Overall, this would have been a pleasant evening at theatre, for anyone familiar with the movie, and who know someone in the cast. For anyone who didn’t fit both of those categories, it would have either been “blah” boring, or outright confusing. Kudos, however, to Whole Backstage for attempting to tackle an iconic piece of American holiday entertainment. I still believe the talent level is there for some quality, GOOD theatre, but this wasn’t it, unfortunately.
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