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It's a Wonderful Life

Based on the film by Frank Capra

Adapted by Philip Grecian

Directed by Donna Feore

Starring Mike Shara, Marla McLean, Juan Chioran

At Canadian Stage Company

In Toronto



It's a Wonderful Life was by no means an instant Christmas classic. The Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart was a financial flop when it was first released in 1946 and only became popular 30 years later.

It bloomed late partly due to a quirk of unrenewed copyright that allowed television stations to broadcast it cheaply, over and over during the holiday season, starting in the seventies. (The film's copyright has since been reasserted, reducing its ubiquity.) But it also gained in appeal decades after its release because the film's surfeit of sentimentality is much less cloying viewed through the forgiving lens of nostalgia.

Far from the forties, we can say, ah, those were simpler times, even though they weren't. In fact, when It's a Wonderful Life opened, the critic of The New York Times attacked it for "its illusory concept of life" and "the too frequent inclinations of everyone to act juvenile and coy" - the very aspects one would be called cynical for pointing out today.

Philip Grecian's 2003 stage adaptation of the famous film performs a neat balancing act that allows most of the nostalgia to remain, while undercutting some of the story's more sugary elements with healthy injections of irony.

Grecian's formula is to transform It's a Wonderful Life into a radio play performed live by 12 voice actors in a 1940s radio station called WLGB; the delightful ensemble in director Donna Feore's production, in other words, are playing voice actors performing all 60-odd roles in a radio adaptation of the film.

Juan Chioran's lothario Tyrone Dixon - who plays such characters as evil Mr. Potter and the head angel Joseph - walks around slapping all the women on the behind, while the actors voicing George Bailey and his wife - played by the ever-reliable Mike Shara and Marla McLean, both recently of the Shaw Festival - seem to be falling in love with one another.

The voice-over artists spend their idle time reading books, blowing bubbles with their gum and knitting in the background, while the ones at the microphone silently poke fun at each other's performances and some of the more wide-eyed moments in the script.

John Gzowski's foley artist provides the sound effects, while composer Leslie Arden - in character as the frumpy pianist Pearl Lowe - accompanies on the piano and the organ. The broadcast is punctuated with station announcements and mildly satirical advertising jingles that portray postwar America in a less idyllic way.

All this behind-the-scenes business never fully blooms into a secondary plot, but it's engaging to watch while listening to the familiar story. With the help of Michael Gianfrancesco's confectionery costumes and set, Feore creates a never-ending stream of eye-catching Norman Rockwell-esque tableaux.

For anyone who hasn't seen it, if such a mythical creature exists and is reading The Globe and Mail, It's a Wonderful Life is a partially inverted and decidedly American twist on A Christmas Carol.

In both, otherworldly spirits visit a man on Christmas Eve and open his eyes to what life looks like with and without him. But instead of Dickens's four ghosts visiting an unrepentant miser in need of redemption, here we get a bumbling, Irish-brogued angel dropping in on a poor, generous man who is suddenly wracked by guilt. Instead of convincing him to change his ways à la Scrooge, the spirit wants George Bailey to realize that he's great just the way he is.

In Feore's picture-perfect production, the playful cast often looks in danger of breaking into song and dance. In fact, they briefly do the Charleston, which, of course, is unnecessary for radio, but such a joyful moment that you wish it happened more often.

Where the production stumbles is in successfully bringing the radio play within the play to a stirring conclusion. Feore doesn't ease up on the irony early enough, leaving us too distanced from the emotional climax.

As George begins to have his breakdown, the opening-night crowd laughed when Mary (or McLean playing actor Fanny O'Brian playing Mary) cried, "George, stop torturing the children!" The line is over the top as it is - with the children played by adults, even more so; the whole thing threatened to derail into camp.

My eyes did well a bit at "every time a bell rings ...," I'll admit, but I suspect this was mainly a Pavlovian response. Those who want to fully immerse themselves in the joys of It's a Wonderful Life's unfettered sentimentality may want to shut their eyes and just listen for the last quarter of the show.

It's a Wonderful Life continues until Dec. 20 (416-368-3110).

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