In the 1940s, radio versions of feature films such as It's a Wonderful Life were a common promotional tool.
The stars of Frank Capra's bittersweet 1946 drama, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, reprised their roles twice the following year for national broadcasts. American adaptor Philip Grecian has revived the lost art of radio drama with a live airing of It's a Wonderful Life, which opened Thursday night at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, or what is purported to be the mid-20th century sound studio of Winnipeg's CMTC.
There the fictional Red River Radio Players, comprising a dozen members, tell the hoary yet still-affecting holiday heartwarmer that questions what makes a person like everyman George Bailey a failure or success. What could have more resonance today than a man's life and business seemingly collapsing around him?
No matter your taste for Capra-corn -- and many can't stomach his sickly-sweet Norman Rockwell world -- Grecian gives you another irresistible reason to dial into CMTC. By transporting MTC patrons back to 1947 as part of a broadcast audience, he bathes them in the golden age of radio, a nostalgic glow evoked by blinking applause signs, old-style singing jingles, two-cent licorice shoestrings and the rare appearance of a true foley artist. Was there really a time when the exclamation "horsefeathers" warranted a hasty apology?
Grecian's main accomplishment, with the aid of Winnipeg director Robb Paterson, is to allow viewers to remember the film and re-imagine it at the same time with fun aural cues. Set and costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco provides the fashion look with the men outfitted in fedoras, bow ties and pinstripe suits and the women in below-the-knee dresses, seamed stockings and even a snood.
With due respect to Toronto actor Mike Shara, who communicates the innocent charisma of ah-shucks dreamer George Bailey without foolishly competing with the iconic Jimmy Stewart, it is foley artist John Gzowski who puts the wonderful in MTC's It's a Wonderful Life.
While the 10 actors, with keyboardist Danny Carroll providing all the live music, stand in front of vintage microphones, scripts in hand, reading the story that is always in reruns in our memories, Gzowski whips up the soundscape, and surprisingly, the eye candy. Without a word or facial expression, the son of the late, legendary CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski bustles around his crowded end of the stage pulling out the strangest contraptions to entertain the ear. Who knew that fondling a ball of casette tape could replicate someone hiding in a bush or twisting a stalk of celery someone breaking through river ice? He is ever-watchable!
The subtext of It's a Wonderful Life suggests investing in your community and Paterson has done that with a company of actors that, save Shara, is Winnipeg-bred. They all get to play multiple roles to use their voice to reflect character.
A nearly unrecognizable Christopher Sigurdson excels as the hissable Mr. Potter, the hateful Bailey rival. Steven Ratzlaff's deep timbre makes him ideal to play God while Lisa Anne Durupt's high pitch makes her a natural Zuzu. Robert G. Slade comes home to provide some comic relief as the befuddled angel Clarence. Mairi Babb has always projected Donna Reed sweetness and channels it here to nice effect. The voice work of Matt Kippen, Gord Tanner and Jan Skene as three of the Bailey youngsters can melt the heart of anyone with the grumps. Kevin Klassen's cartoonish Italian accent is as broad as all of Tuscany.
The core message of A Wonderful Life -- all people are important and we're all connected in ways we don't even notice -- is worthy of being heard again as we kick off our Christmas celebrations.