Still Wonderful

Center Stage interprets Capra’s Life
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 16, 2009

 Theater_Wonderful_main
LET IT SNOW! Raising the roof in It’s a Wonderful Life.

It's a risky gamble, creating a stage version of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Most people are more familiar with that holiday film classic than they are with the Bill of Rights. Its message of hopeful optimism is so American it's downright patriotic, and fiddling with it would strike some as akin to rearranging the stars and stripes.

Nonetheless, Russell M. Maitland, the executive director of the Courthouse Center for the Arts in Kingston and artistic director of its theater company, Center Stage, is doing so, and will continue to do so through December 20. It's directed, designed, and staged by Maitland. Oh, yes, he also plays the lead.

No — don't go away. This may look like a vanity production, but it doesn't walk or quack like a vanity production. As Maitland has demonstrated in previous productions, Center Stage can usually pull off what he has them take on. With more than two dozen in the cast, including a lot of kids, it does have a decidedly community theater vibe, but the key characters are well-cast, and their performances are on the money.

In case any of the three people in the country not familiar with the film are reading this, here's a summary. Rather than go off to college and see the world, George Bailey sticks around to help Bedford Falls by keeping the savings and loan in business. When money is missing and the bank examiner arrives, George grows suicidal and wishes he'd never been born. Angel-in-training Clarence, sent down to save him, grants his wish, and George gets to see how awful many lives would have been without him. He returns to his present life inspired, and the town comes through for him, raising the missing money.

A strength is that this production adheres faithfully to the breezy dialogue and tight storytelling of the film's script, the product of a quartet of prize-winning screenwriters headed by Capra. A few minor abbreviations are made and transitional narration added, to keep things clicking along at the 24-fps pace of a movie.

Unfortunately, a major change sometimes interferes with that advantage of briskness. Nearly three dozen songs have been added, which sometimes screech the action to a halt, constricting the narrative flow for a while before allowing it to carry on.

This hasn't been turned into a musical, understand, with George tapping out a little "Singing In the Rain" number after a moon-eyed encounter with Mary. Sometimes there's just the well-performed music, by two keyboards and bass; sometimes there are mood-appropriate carols by a chorus; but mostly there are well-chosen songs, tailored to the scenes and characters singing them. Here's where Maitland's extensive musical theater experience — off-Broadway, national tours, and at regional theaters — comes in handy. Sometimes they are as obscure as they are apt, such as the beautiful love song "Imitates the Sun," which George sings to his sweetheart, Mary (Jennica Serra); or the equally stirring "Life In a Looking Glass," sung by Ma Bailey (Trudi Miller).

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