Somehow it seems inevitable that It's a Wonderful Life should have achieved its iconic pop-culture status. Yet Frank Capra's 1946 movie went 0-for-5 at the Academy Awards, it was only mediocre at the box office and most of its popularity dates only from 1974, when it was mistakenly placed into the public domain and became a Christmas-time staple on network TV.
There's no secret about why this story has become a classic: it appeals to our egos. If we're secretly convinced that in this crazy world, our lives don't really amount to a hill of beans, then the screenplay reassures us that we matter. Our lives do, indeed, have significance, says the script. Of course, then it turns right around to suggest that our self-concern should be leavened with selflessness, or at least George Bailey's honest brand of generosity.
The Spokane Civic Theatre's production of A Wonderful Life, the 1988 musical version of the Capra classic, manages to convey much of that message despite some lapses. Several affecting scenes and strong central performances, however, make the production well worth watching.
Coordinating all the elements of a musical comedy is logistically complex, but director Phillip E. Mitchell has devised some effective visuals. Both at the outset and near the end of the play, using scrim and backlighting, Mitchell convinces us that George, haunted by accusing voices (presented chorus-like in the background) is on the verge of suicide. (In one of several neat divergences from the movie, the particular method of suicide contemplated here is different.) The same effect, however, abruptly intrudes at the end of Act One, right after a scene of domestic happiness and with no motivation; in this case, however, it's not the direction but Sheldon Harnick's script that is at fault.
Mitchell uses the same technique to physically render George's dreams of wealth later in the evening, with haunting effect: As Mr. Potter dangles the promise of money in front of our hero during the temptation scene, George's wife Mary (Christine Clayburg, in a graceful performance) appears behind him, bejeweled, in an elegant gown, and surrounded by men in evening wear. Mitchell directs with a deft hand.
The ensemble also appears to good effect, especially in the Charleston scene at the high school gym, where Janet Wilder's choreography jitters and shines.
Peter Hardie has done his usual commendable job with the sets. The writers, however, perhaps in an effort to replicate the flow of a motion picture, have called for too many scene changes. Even with all those angels and other extras around, sometimes stagehands had to appear in the middle of scenes and push some creaky contraptions offstage. The seams show, and that's too bad.
Clayburg brings a lovely voice, a strong backbone and considerable grace to the part of Mary Bailey. She conveys Mary's sense of mischief (alarming her mother about George's supposedly sexual overtures), her strength (in standing up to her husband when he storms home in anger, in a scene the script presents too briefly), and her generosity (in the improvised, on-the-cheap honeymoon scene).
Clarence, the apprentice angel, has a smaller part here than in the movie. While we see him up in the fluffy clouds with the superior, bewinged angels, he doesn't tumble into George's life until two hours of the show have unfolded. That's unfortunate, because Jerry Sciarrio is delightful in the role, both in his solo ("Wings") and in the bumbling way he parallels George's own attempts at success.
As Mr. Potter, the Scrooge figure of the piece, Barry MacConnell is uneven. He seems too deferential to George in their initial face-off, and the script undermines him by allocating him a rather peppy temptation-scene song. The evil financier needs to be crusty and aloof, not a vaudeville figure crooning in show-barker rhythms as he lays out for George just how opulent his life could be. Still, in his final scene, when he famously informs George that the young hero is worth more dead than alive, MacConnell, all averted eyes and cold fiduciary responsibility, nearly outdoes Lionel Barrymore in his villainy.
The actor who has to shoulder the largest burden from the past, of course, is Kevin Partridge, in the central Jimmy Stewart role of George Bailey. He is more than up to the challenge. Partridge is, quite simply, the best thing about this show. He owns it. He rises above some of Harnick's occasionally clunky lyrics. He projects an all-American character without being corny. He manages to remind us of the best features of Stewart's performance without plunging into slavish imitation. His voice is the strongest and clearest in the cast, and his acting is both convincing and endearing. Whether he's joshing with his brother Harry, kneeling in supplication to God or sharing a first kiss with Clayburg (first awkward, then yearning and erotic -- a lovely touch), Partridge demonstrates that he has the acting chops to go with those pipes. He's worth the price of admission.
If, however, it weren't for Partridge's affecting performance, along with Clayburg's voice and a few impressive stage images, I'd say just fire up the VCR one more time and watch the original. Yet perhaps a play about the value of community is especially well suited to a community theater production. Maybe we can benefit from the spectacle of regular folks with regular lives and jobs, singing and dancing with gusto and giving of themselves, just to bring us a new perspective on a story we're convinced we already know.