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A CurtainUp Review
A Wonderful Life
The musical version was created in the early 90s and has been popping up on occasion in regional theaters without finding its way to Broadway. With a book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me) and music by Joe Raposo (Sesame Street, The Great Muppet Caper), it has assuredly taken on a life of its own and without the validation of Broadway. The Paper Mill Playhouse can be proud of their production of this presumably problematic musical. It is a generally rewarding one, made significantly so by an excellent cast and a handsome production. Under the artful and crafty direction of James Brennan, A Wonderful Life is probably as close to being as wonderful as it ever will be.
Although the plot sticks to the prescribed excesses of saccharine and dour events, the staging is most notably conspicuous for the vim and vigor that energizes it and for the appealing leading and supporting players who propel it. It is, however, unnecessarily long at 2 hours and 45 minutes and some judicious pruning is in order.
The show begins in 1945 as a despairing George Bailey (James Clow) is asking God to show him the way ("George’s Prayer") out of a mess that might see him put in jail. He is even contemplating suicide. But help is on the way from the celestial plane among the glittering stars and swirling clouds of smoke. There Clarence (played by an enthusiastically jaunty and balding Jeff Brooks) has hopes of earning his wings as a first class angel. His assignment, as given to him by his humorless superior Matthew (Dale Radunz), is to go to earth and give the despondent George Bailey (James Clow) a reason to live, essentially to show him what life in Bedford Falls would be like had he never lived.
Comprised of scenes from George’s life from 1928 to 1945 —each one introduced by Clarence, our designated guide to provide the evidence that supports George’s feelings of failure — A Wonderful Life ultimately and fortuitously offers enough reasons for an audience to leave happy at the end and without entertaining any suicidal thoughts of their own.
Tall, slightly lumbering James Clow is perfect as the kind, considerate and generous hard-working George Bailey, who wants to go to Cornell College to be become an architect, see the world ("This Year Europe") and leave his home-town Bedford Falls far behind him. His angst, often expressed through his strong sturdy voice (particularly effective in the embittered Act II aria "Precious Little"”) begins when his father has a stroke and dies and he has to take over the reins of the family’s building and loan business.
His brother Harry Bailey (Jordan Cable) does get to go to college, but not before he wins the Bedford Hills High School Charleston contest, the show’s only significant dance number for the full ensemble. It is exuberantly choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and is also an opportunity for costume designer Gail Baldoni, to show off her flair for flapper wear. It is there that George is introduced to Mary (Catherine Brunell) who is destined to share his life and, of course, three very nicely melodic duets: "If I Had a Wish," "Good Night" and the title song. Brunell’s silvery soprano voice, as well as her pert presence and dramatically convincing portrayal, especially in her impassioned aria "I Couldn’t Be With Anyone But You," brings to mind the legendary Barbara Cook.
All the supporting roles are handled with aplomb. Standout is Nick Wyman who is unquestionably despicable as George’s nemesis, the unscrupulous and dastardly crook Mr. Potter. J.B. Adams, as the absent-minded Uncle Billy, Sean Martin Hingston, as the wheeling-dealing Sam Wainwright, John Jellison and Jan Pessano, as George’s parents, also create sharply defined characters.
Charlie Smith’s many impressive and very handsome settings include the Bailey’s home, Main Street, the Gymnasium, offices at the Building and Loan and Potter’s bank, and, of course, heaven —, plus many beautifully painted flats that appear and depart with an almost cinematic mobility. The special effects cannot go unmentioned, particularly the scene in which George stands in front of an on-rushing train, a la Anna Karenina. We are blinded by the train’s headlight as it grows in size as it nears him and then again the sight of the train as it speeds away.
Will the musical upset the purists who don’t want a scene or a word of dialogue changed? Undoubtedly, but others will consider any changes as refreshing. One might say, the sentiments of this musical are perhaps a bit more quaint than we are used to today. But the sight at the end of a family gathered together in love and by a lighted Christmas tree remains a timeless and comforting image.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide