A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in delightful It’s A Wonderful Life

Soulpepper added an extra bit of cheer to its holiday programming this year with its production of Philip Grecian’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, assisted by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, and opening to a packed house at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre last night.

Set as a 1940s radio play performed on stage—with the actors playing actors playing characters in the story—this version of It’s A Wonderful Life gives us all the favourite moments of the film version, including the dialogue, with the added fun of a behind-the-scenes look at some fabulous Foley (sound effects) work, designed by John Gzowski. And last night, we had the added treat of a charming performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the Dixon Hall Music School children’s choir.

George Bailey (Gregory Prest) has spent his entire life helping others in his small town. As a kid (Richie Lawrence) he saved his kid brother Harry (Christef Desir) and after school employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (Diego Matamoros). And as an adult, he sacrificed college and travel to save the family building and loan business from falling into the hands of the corrupt and wealthy Mr. Potter (Matamoros). All so the hard-working, struggling folks of Bedford Falls could have a fair chance at a decent home.

Challenges aside, he’s got a pretty good life, with a lovely, supportive wife Mary (Raquel Duffy) and four sweet kids (Daniel Mousseau, Thea Lapham, Michelle Monteith and Richie Lawrence). Until one Christmas Eve Day, a banking mistake made by his absent-minded uncle Billy (William Webster) threatens to cost him everything. And in his most desperate hour, his guardian angel Clarence (Oliver Dennis) appears and sets out to show him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis & Derek Boyes – all photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

This production truly captures the spirit of this beloved holiday classic, and then some. In true radio broadcast style, the show features live commercial spots shouting out Soulpepper’s corporate sponsors and other holiday program offering, with live piano accompaniment (James Smith of Chasse-Galerie). But the biggest fun of all has to be the Foley artistry, featuring Christef Desir, Daniel Mousseau and Marcel Stewart as the soundmen (operating a neat assortment of sound-making props and gadgets, and playing multiple characters as well); with the entire ensemble creating various sound effects vocally. And at the end of Act I, aptly staged during George and Mary’s honeymoon scene, the stage goes to black as the scene continues, with lights on the vintage radio down stage left—giving us a taste of the radio drama experience.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Christef Desir & Michelle Fisk, with Marcel Stewart & Ellie Moon in the background

Exceptional work from this cast. Stand-outs include Prest, who brings a good-natured authenticity to George Bailey, an everyman performing everyday acts of heroism; there’s really nice chemistry with Duffy’s Mary, George’s warm but feisty perfect match. Matamoros delivers some delicious voice work, from the velvet smooth tones of the announcer, to the gravel-voiced Mr. Gower, to the malevolent, grasping villain Mr. Potter. And Dennis is adorably quaint as the underdog Angel Second Class Clarence, determined to earn his wings.

Monteith brings some great vocal chops and range, going from the slinky town party girl Violet, to the too cute for words Zuzu (George’s youngest daughter, famous for Zuzu’s petals); and Mousseau is a delight as Martini, the owner of one of the town’s favourite restaurants. And shouts to kid actors Lapham (Young Mary and George’s daughter Janie) and Lawrence (Young George and George’s son Tommy).

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in Soulpepper’s delightful 1940s radio play production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s A Wonderful Life continues the Bluma Appel Theatre—and, good news, it’s been extended to December 31. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video for a peek at the fun in store:

And while you’re at it, check out some of Soulpepper’s other holiday treats, including its annual production of A Christmas Carol and the Family Festival programming. Here’s hoping that It’s A Wonderful Life becomes an additional holiday tradition at Soulpepper.

It’s A Wonderful Life delights onstage

A delightful, magical evening of holiday fun last night at Alexander Showcase Theatre’s (formerly the Alexander Players & Singers) encore production of It’s A Wonderful Life, remounted for a three-day run at the Papermill Theatre after a very successful run last season.

Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, this adaptation of the Frank Capra holiday film classic is set in the 1940s as a radio play within a play. The characters – actors and two foley artists – enter the studio from the house as the audience is still filing in, greeting each other and prepping to go on air. To add to the fun, the script includes live commercial breaks, with actors Erin Leeneuw, Nina Mason and Mallory McGrath giving us Andrews Sisters vocal stylings as they sing out the production’s present-day sponsors in 1940s jingle fashion! And all done with live piano accompaniment by Jo-Anne Wurster. Clever and fun – and adds to the already incredible selection of period music, assembled by music coordinator Gwyneth Sestito, who did double duty on costumes. Shouts also to set designer Peter Thorman and props manager Deborah Mills (who also plays the head foley artist) for the details of this sound studio environment, from the old microphones downstage to the break area upstage, taking us back in time along with the music before the actors even hit the stage.

The marvelous – and large – cast includes Patrick Brown, Marc Davies, Bob Deutsch, Eugene Fong-Dere, Miles Hearn, Steve Kyriacopoulos (another multi-tasker, including producer), Erin Leeneuw, Nina Mason, Mallory McGrath, Deborah Mills, Seth Mukamal, Beth Roher, Matthew Speciale, Nicholas Speciale, Alex Veldhuizen, Jo-Anne Wurster, Sharon Zehavi and Arnie Zweig – most of whom play multiple characters in the radio play performance. The radio actors have their own stories and dynamic going on – and, overall, there’s a warm family vibe behind the scenes as they chat, and break into the occasional song and dance. There’s even an “offstage” attraction dynamic happening between the actors playing George Bailey, Mary Hatch and Violet Bick, mirroring that of their IAWL characters. And there’s a revised ending to the IWAL story, with old man Potter not getting off so easy.

Stand-out work from this amazing cast includes Brown (Ken Boland/George Bailey), ever handsome and giving us a moving performance that balanced the lighter side of George’s journey with the drama and pathos. Deutsch is lovable and sweet as actor Huntley Haverstock, and adorably child-like as the angel Clarence Oddbody. Mason is lovely in a natural, no-nonsense kind of way as Kathleen Robinson, who plays Mary Hatch Bailey – Donna Reed would be proud. McGrath brings it playful and sexy as actor Clarissa D’Orazio and IAWL “bad girl” with a good heart Violet Bick. And Sharon Zehavi is a big ball of enthusiastic delight as Shelley Michaels, a young actor soaking up the atmosphere of her job, as well as every piece of advice she can – and just so darned happy to be working on the show that she could bust – with strong voice-over chops on the various IAWL characters she played.

It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favourite holiday movies – and an all-around favourite as well – and this stage adaptation has all the joy, magic and good will message. As far as I can tell, today’s matinée (Saturday, December 8) is sold out, but you may be able to get in to see their closing performance tonight. Box office: 416-396-2819.

Have any holiday favourites?

Some December happenings

While I’m taking a bit of a break after all the recent theatre-going and set work, thought I’d shout out some ongoing and upcoming December fun.

Red Sandcastle Theatre is cooking with music, comedy, drama and holiday fun all month long! Check out their website to see what A.D./actor Rosemary Doyle (who’s appearing in Escape From Happiness till Dec 17) has happening for December.

Alexander Showcase Theatre (formerly the Alexander Players and Singers) remounts their 1940s radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life for a very short run, from Thursday, December 6 (that’s tonight, folks) to Saturday, December 8 – please note the early curtain time of 7:30 p.m. – at the Papermill Theatre.

The December edition of The Beautiful and the Damned poetry cabaret is coming up next week, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 13 upstairs at Glad Day Bookshop. Hosted by Duncan Armstrong, and featuring Rocco di Giacomo, Melissa Benner and Ameoba Starfish, plus open mic performers.

Songwriters Circle of Jerks – featuring the amazing sounds of Melting Pot, Big Name Actors, Nick Verona and David Hustler, and maybe even a guest or two – at Free Times Café, also on Thursday, December 13 – 8 p.m. in the back room.

Set Those Sails – A Night of William Finn with new arrangements by Tara Litvak on Friday, December 14 at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick Ave., Toronto) at 7:30 p.m.

Animator/filmmaker/artist Patrick Jenkins and photographer Pamela Williams are both going to be appearing at a Goth Bazaar (918 Bathurst St., Toronto) on Saturday, December 15 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Plasticine Poetry – poetry and spoken word at Pauper’s Pub on Sunday, December 16 at 6 p.m. – featuring David Clink, Lisa de Nikolits, Cathy Petch and Lizzie Violet.

Singer/songwriter Craig Stickland plays at The Drake Hotel on Tuesday, December 18 – 9 p.m. $10 cover or $5 with a non-perishable item.