A Wonderful Life

Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - November 2006
Reviewed by John Kenrick

As a rule, classic films make poor candidates for musical stage adaptation. Comparisons to the original are inevitable, and unless music brings a worthwhile new dimension to the material, the new version is bound to suffer by comparison. It's A Wonderful Life, which has long since taken its rightful place as America's favorite Christmas movie, is a case in point. No cast could hope to match memories of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore. Worse yet, Frank Capra's tribute to the importance of an ordinary life is quite perfect as it is. Setting that tale to music just slows things down to a point where you find yourself wishing they would just get on with it.

Is there anyone who does not know the story of A Wonderful Life? In brief, Clarence, an apprentice angel, tries to win his wings by talking the distraught George Bailey out of suicide. We see key moments in Bailey's life, which has been spent in a small town where he tries to help working people buy and keep homes in the face of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He romances and marries Mary (who has had a crush on him since high school), and battles Henry Potter, the greedy businessman who won't stop until he owns the whole town. George then sees what the world would be like if he had never lived, and finally realizes that he has a wonderful life. Potter's latest evil plan is thwarted, George embraces his family, and Clarence gets his long awaited wings.

Librettist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and the late composer Joe Raposo (Sesame Street) attempted a Broadway-bound musical version of this gem back in the 1980s, and it has been popping up in regional theatres ever since. The current Paper Mill Playhouse production makes it clear for the umpteenth time that this project was and is a weak one. Raposo turned out some solid melodies, and Harnick's lyrics are always well crafted, but the main characters in It's A Wonderful Life have precious little to sing about, so the results always feel forced, or at the very least imposed. George & Mary may be the leads, but the memorable musical moments belong to supporting characters -- a clear sign that this material is improperly focused. With a whopping thirty scenes, this musical is as unwieldy as it is ambitious. Another tell-tale symptom of trouble is the abrupt way act one ends, at a moment when it definitely does not fit naturally into the flow of the play.

Director James Brennan brings a steady hand to the proceedings, and keeps the action clear and well-paced. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's dances are first-rate, as are the costumes by Gail Baldoni and lighting by Richard Winkler. Charlie Smith's sets try to evoke period atmosphere on a tight budget, but the overall look is too dark and dreary for a holiday musical. No one could fault musical director Tom Helm, who conducts the score with assurance.

As George Bailey, James Clow displays a fine baritone voice and a sense of dramatic timing, but he is not nearly the powerful presence required in this central role. Catherine Brunell sings beautifully as Mary, but is yet another capable actor in a role that cries out for star quality. The same is true for Jeff Brooks who plays Clarence -- charming, but not compelling. Paper Mill is not just any regional theatre. It is only a short ride from Manhattan, and Broadway stars used to be a crucial attraction here. Offering a starless cast so close to New York City makes no sense, and only makes the weaknesses of It's A Wonderful Life all the harder to deal with. Mind you, I saw an all-star concert version of this show in New York last year, and even the most distinguished cast imaginable could only do so much with the material. But when the vehicle creaks, as this one does, star power does make a difference.

Some fine people fill out the supporting roles, including the capable Nick Wyman as Henry Potter, John Jellison in an all too brief appearance as George's father, and Robert Creighton as the small town's only cab driver. The strong ensemble wins a fine hand for an energetic Charleston routine, which, of course, has nothing to do with the main storyline.

This version of A Wonderful Life is a sincere, professional effort on the part of gifted artists trying to come up with a good musical. That they have failed is no disgrace. It has happened to every great talent in theatrical history. The difference is that most failures are allowed to die quietly. My fear is that the lure of doing a musical based on a beloved film will entice other theatre companies into reviving this project. My advice is simple -- don't. Audiences will be much better off catching the original film. As for Paper Mill, I fear that a once-delightful adjunct to the New York theatre scene may be in the process of demoting itself to being just another suburban theatre, and that's a real loss.

This limited run ended on December 17, 2005.

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