An exquisite night of holiday amusement, the Station Theatre’s current production is the perfect show to see this time of year. This classic American story is told through the voice talents of an ensemble in a radio play format. The talented collection of local actors play 1940’s caricatures of themselves along with providing multiple character voices, live foley sounds, and holiday cheer to director Ed Pierce’s own adaptation of beloved film It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life came out on the heels of World War II. A nation that had just persevered through hard times, America wrapped its arms around this 1946 hit which became an instant Christmas classic. The story features George Bailey, a businessman in Bedford Falls, NY. George grows up, falls in love, and later finds himself wishing he had never been born. Guardian angels above watch over George and grant him his wish when he’s at his wit’s end. Quickly George realizes how vital he is to the workings of the universe and that it truly is a wonderful life after all.
Despite its status as an essential American movie, many are surprised to hear that I have never seen it. Asking around, I don’t always find myself to be alone in this matter. The topic of It’s a Wonderful Life can be very polarizing. Either you have cherished memories of growing up and watching this nostalgic film throughout the years, or you haven’t seen it and shrug your shoulders at the thought of it. If you’re the latter, I’m here to tell you that the best way to first experience this story at the Station Theatre.
My partner and I walked into a lovely pre-show Christmas singalong led by music director Cheryl Forest Morganson. We joined in with the caroling and had a great time connecting with the actors on the stage, who all sang along with gusto. In the background, actress Katie Prosise cut up paper snowflakes and handed them out to audience members. It was lovely to take home a dainty memento of this sentimental play.
The format of the radio play was truly enjoyable because it points you in the direction of what you might see while watching a film, but leaves room for audiences to explore their individual imaginations. However, the actors do move around the stage and bounce emotion off each other through acting out the scenes in a more contained setting. Jake Fava and Joi Hoffsommer lead the action of the play a George and Mary Bailey, respectively. Their voices and demeanor compliment each other well, with Fava’s booming, New York accent and Hoffsommer’s sweet and gentle articulation.
Four Davids — Butler, Laker, Katz, and Krost — appear in this show and round out the male cast of characters in effortless fashion. Chelsea Collier and Katie Prosise provide the voices of the women and impressively believable children. I was floored with the way these actors were able to present so many characters with differentiating voices, oftentimes back to back.
John Tilford provided live sound effects such as shoes crunching in show, crashing glass, and unique solutions to practical actions, such as the opening and closing of a tiny door to mark when characters entered and exited rooms. Cheryl Forest Morganson provided live piano and violin music, which added an extra layer of feeling to this feel-good morality play.
A wall of regal red curtains framed the radio station’s glowing letters: WJMP. To the audience’s left was a decorated and colorfully lit Christmas tree and a piano. To the right, a sound effects table. Four old style microphones were lined up on a large, decorative rug where most of the action took place. When actors were not speaking into the microphones, they rested in chairs at the back of the stage. Poinsettias and other fauna added life to the stage.
Susan Curtis provided a colorful palette of authentic-feeling 1940’s costumes. The men wore a variety of plaid, sweater vests, and suit pieces. The women wore gorgeous, silky pieces in festive jewel tones. Brian Hagy’s practical and warm lighting design added dimension to the radio station setting.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live on the Air! at the Station Theatre is the perfect way to ring in Christmas cheer. This story warms the heart and leaves you with a sense of appreciation and understanding for why people love this classic American tale so much. Sometimes when things in the world are crazy, a little nostalgia and Christmas cheer are comforting to cling onto.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live on the Air!
The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre
223 N. Broadway, Urbana
December 5th through 8th, 11th through 14th, 18th through 21st, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday matinee, December 15th, 3 p.m.
Order tickets online here
Photos by Jesse Folks