Review: Warmth of original film captured in SJ Stage’s production of ‘Wonderful Life’

(L to R) Martin Rojas Dietrich, Kevin Blackton and Will Springhorn, Jr. portray multiple characters in San Jose Stage's "It's a Wonderful Life - A Live Radio Play." (Photo by Dave Lepori)
(L to R) Martin Rojas Dietrich, Kevin Blackton and Will Springhorn, Jr. portray multiple characters in San Jose Stage’s “It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play.” (Photo by Dave Lepori)

It is not hard to figure out what is so appealing about Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It was a film I saw sparingly over my time, but it has a completely different meaning for my wife. She grew up with it like many did, as a holiday tradition not to be missed, a tradition that changed the way we think about bells and angels. As kids of the 1980’s, that meant waiting for it to come on television, and absorbing the tradition in a communal way with the rest of the country. And most importantly, in black and white.

San Jose Stage’s delightfully effective production, presented in the style of a radio play, maintains much of the magic that makes the film so sappy sweet. The story is familiar – hometown everyman George Bailey (Will Springhorn, Jr.) dreams of a world far away from the quaint and idyllic Bedford Falls. But due to circumstances that continue to snowball which takes full advantage of his loyalty, George dismisses his dreams of Europe in order to stay home and take care of the family savings and loan business. The town is under siege, and George takes it upon himself to save Bedford Falls from evil, Faustian money tycoon Mr. Henry F. Potter.  Eventually, the pressure of compromising his life gets to George, causing him to crash his car and attempt suicide. Only the Angel Second Class Clarence, who has been following the story from the beginning, is able to save him by showing how much his life has meant to so many others. And when George realizes what a wonderful life he has had, Clarence is finally able to earn his wings, and all is right in Bedford Falls.

What the Stage productions gets right is the feelings of Frank Capra’s classic, adapted sharply by Joe Landry and directed with smoothness by artistic director Randall King. A cast of six plays multiple roles, recreating sound effects and voices young and old. While the exposition at times moves a bit slow, the warmth of the show smoothly cascades through the microphones. It is quite remarkable how, even though the style of the play is presentational, and one where there is not a ton of connection in the conventional sense, the play still is able to tap into what resonates through the film. James Stewart’s masterful turn as the story’s reluctant hero is nicely recreated by Springhorn, Jr. To be certain, his portrayal is not an impression of Stewart, which many do. But it’s his pathos, his understanding of each critical moment, which makes his portrayal effective. Halsey Varady as the actress Sally Applewhite, who mostly plays George’s loyal wife Mary, is genuine and warm, and both Springhorn, Jr. and Varady connected beautifully in many moments, including the telephone scene, one of the sweetest in the film. Judith Miller and Allison F. Rich provide lovely texture, with Miller taking on her role of sound gal with joyous glee. While Kevin Blackton has a lovely, deeply rich voice that’s made for a medium like radio, Martin Rojas Dietrich is extremely versatile, which gives the illusion of many more characters in the studio. And every character contributed brightly to the richness of the commercials, which were a show unto themselves. The cheery harmonies of jingles continued to enhance the chipper unity of the overall piece.

The reason why we watch films over and over at this time of year has everything to do with how those films make us feel. Which is somewhat ironic because the film was never intentioned to be a Christmas movie. According to Roger Ebert, Capra intended the film to be a celebration of the American spirit, the first film he made after returning from World War II as an army man. But in a production such as this, the Stage gives an audience the opportunity for a fresh rediscovery of the story, a story that provides delicious morsels of wit and wisdom for those who choose to believe in bells and angels.


San Jose Stage Company presents “It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play”
Adapted by Joe Landry
Directed by Randall King
The Word: A play that provides the rich texture and undeniable warmth that has made the movie an annual tradition for many.
Stars: 3.5 out of 4
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Through Dec. 22nd
San Jose Stage Company
490 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit


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