A Wonderful Life, the fully staged musical now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, has been adapted from the Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life. Capra’s film is a classic, though it’s not likely that the stage production will ever become classic. There’s something missing in the show that first opened in 1986 and couldn’t make it to Broadway. This is in spite of the fact that it had a one-night-stand at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre as a staged concert version. Maybe it’s the less than memorable music and choreography that competes with the story line of kind-hearted, down-on-his-luck banker George Bailey.
Don’t expect this production to be just like the movie. It is missing quite a few charming and tender family scenes and George’s dramatic suicide attempt is a confusing piece of stage business that is not the least bit dramatic. In this production, he’s about to jump onto a train track. What is the same is the George Bailey who desperately wants to see the world but ends up stuck in his small hometown of Bedford Falls. He has to carry on the family’s mortgage and loan business and has to contend with the dirty-dealing, big-bank competitor – Mr. Potter.
Meanwhile, in this fantasy-drama, Clarence, an angel who has not yet earned his wings, is assigned to watch over George. Clarence hopes to gain his wings with this assignment.
What worked so well in the movie, which starred James Stewart, doesn’t cut it on stage. The acting is good, with Frank Vlastnik stealing the show as a young and nerdy Clarence. His lively and comic antics make him thoroughly entertaining and an audience favorite.
Duke Lafoon as George Bailey does a fine job, but fades into the production as big song and dance numbers awkwardly cramp the stage. It’s fascinating to watch each talented dancer move around the small stage without stepping on another dancer’s foot. It’s quite an accomplishment. Kristen Scott plays Mary Hatch, the romantic female lead who marries George. Her performance is also very good, but is also swallowed up in a lot of stage business. Interestingly enough, the villain Potter stands out thanks to an outstanding performance by Ed Dixon.
Michael Perlman directs this musical, with book by Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo’s music. In true Goodspeed tradition there’s a lot of colorful big musical numbers. They are lively and mostly cherry, but they don’t seem to fit the small-town storyline very well.
Brian Prather’s set design is practically non-descript, though the bank props worked well. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are character-appropriate and capture the 1940s era well. In fairness to the production, it has a talented and strong cast, but the show doesn’t hold a candle or ring a heavenly bell compared to the classic movie. It plays through Dec. 6. Box office: 860-873-8668.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]