Classic holiday show Its A Wonderful Life gets new treatment by two troupes

by: COURTESY PHOTO: BAG&BAGGAGE PRODUCTIONS AND CASEY CAMPBELL PHOTOGRAPHY - The zany cast of Its A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life includes Adam Syron as Francis Fishbourne, Megan Carver as Petunia Pennywhistle, Jessica Geffen as Lana North-Berkshire, Ian Armstrong as Carlson Callaway and Branden McFarland as Pete Paulson.Hillsboro residents are fortunate to have two companies offering live theater in town — Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) and Bag&Baggage Productions. From a community perspective, these very different troupes should not be viewed as rivals, but as complementary players, each group offering something uniquely wonderful to local fans of live theater — even when presenting different takes on the same holiday classic.

HART: Darker story

For those people too young to have attended the taping of a live radio show (and that includes almost everybody!) HART’s presentation of “It’s A Wonderful Life — A Live Radio Show” may be as close as they’ll get to this grand old American tradition. Director Paul Roder has clearly done his homework — the HART set closely replicates the conditions in a small-town, late 40s radio studio — a row of chairs, a row of microphones, a row of actors, a table full of sound effects for the Foley artist, a live audience (us), a clock and two signs (“ON AIR” and “APPLAUSE”).

“It’s A Wonderful Life” is curiously dark for a holiday favorite — this fundamentally depressing tale of the very good, but suicidal George Bailey is saved at the last minute (as is George) by the intervention of a guardian angel, Clarence. Throughout his life, George’s dreams have been dashed by bad fortune, so much that he thinks it would be better if he had never been born. By showing how the world would have been without George Bailey, Clarence lifts George’s spirits and convinces him that his life has, in fact, been wonderful in its own way.

Movie audiences familiar with Jimmy Stewart’s classic portrayal may not recognize the George Bailey they remember in Aaron Morrow’s performance. Stewart’s Bailey, while depressed and angry, retains an avuncular, cartoonish flavor. Morrow brings a darker tone, creating a real character whose private despair bursts out in moments of genuine anger.

In radio dramas, a small group of actors is called upon to play multiple parts. Paul Roder sets the record — in addition to directing, he plays 11 different characters, switching from voice to voice and accent to accent with lightning speed. Tony Smith and Ilana Watson are hard on Roder’s heels, with 10 parts each, and they bring a versatile professionalism that rivals that of the authentic radio performers of the era.

Jody Spradlin, while required to play only the part of Mary Hatch Bailey, fills a key role — her warmth and empathy help the audience understand that George is truly blessed, despite the hardships he has endured. Karen Roder puts them all to shame: in addition to doing costumes, window and lobby décor, in her portrayal of Foley artist Gladys “Gizmo” Watkins she is the busiest actor on the set.

While the show technically begins at 7:30 p.m. (air time for the radio drama), audiences are advised to come early. The theater opens at 7, and by 7:15 the WBFR singers (Seth Rue, Sarah Thornton, and Emily Miletta the evening we were there) are warming up the audience with a selection of holiday and ‘40s pop tunes.

“It’s A Wonderful Life — A Live Radio Show” plays at the HART Theatre, 185 S.E. Washington St. in Hillsboro, on Dec. 5, 8, 12 and 15 at 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 7 and 14 at 2 pm.

Bag&Baggage: Not ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

“It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life” is many things — fast-paced, funny, engaging and witty, to name just a few. The one thing it is not is “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The Frank Capra classic, as adapted by director Scott Palmer, is not so much the story as it is the vehicle through which the story is told.

A group of veteran radio actors have gathered for the annual Christmas broadcast of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In a curious parallel to the life of IAWL star George Bailey, from the beginning nothing goes right. A fanzine has reported erroneously that star Petunia Pennywhistle loves rum-soaked fruitcake, and station WBNB is inundated with fruitcakes sent by her adoring public. Petunia dumps the fruitcakes on production assistant Pete Paulson, who absent-mindedly nibbles his way to total inebriation just before airtime.

Two key players are missing — the other female lead (who has ditched them to play the Ghost of Christmas Future in another production), and the Foley artist/special effects guru. The drunken Paulson is ordered to replace the Foley artist, a role in which he would have been inept even if he were sober. Player Winston Whiteside arrives with his bimbo du jour, lingerie saleslady Lana North-Berkshire, for whom he has rewritten parts of the show. The tension is heightened by jealousy between handsome lead Carlson Calaway and Francis Fishburne, who harbors a powerful yen for the fair Ms. Pennywhistle.

Somehow the cast manages to lurch through the radio script — it’s a true Christmas miracle! Along the way, the audience is treated to some of the best comedy moments of the season.

The strong six-person cast fills a multitude of roles with a combination of sharp delivery and broad physical comedy. Despite the chaotic set-up, the characters never step over the line from slapstick to unrestrained farce. Ian Armstrong (Calaway) is hilarious as he slips from his character’s haughty demeanor to a truly boffo Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Branden McFarland (Pete Paulson) makes the most of the oft-thankless role of male ingénue, despite being mute throughout Act I. Somehow he manages to constantly draw the audience’s attention by being virtually (and sometimes literally) invisible to the rest of the cast. His impassioned speech in Act II pulls the radio show together; a moment that could have been disgustingly maudlin is saved when he concludes his speech with a dead-drunk pratfall.

Jessica Geffen simply sparkles in her portrayal of Lana North-Berkshire. She is a crass, brassy, bawdy innocent, dazzled by the lure of show biz and 100 percent committed as she hurls herself into one absurd characterization after another. Scott Palmer has created a very funny role, and Geffen lets none of the comic potential slip away.

Bag&Baggage’s production of “It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life” is playing at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., Hillsboro, through Monday, Dec. 23.

A longer version of this review is online at

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