In the opening moments of Silicon Valley’s star-studded TheaterWorks production, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a young man walks through the front door that leads into the station’s studio. Looking around his surroundings, looking through all the props and microphones that will create sound effects live, while five actors perform Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classics for a radio broadcast, he grabs the cover of the show’s vinyl album, pulls out a spherical wax and drops it onto the turntable. …
As the needle slides along the grooves and the sparkling scratching sound penetrates the audience’s ears, transportation to Bedford Falls begins.
While those moments help take the show off the ground, this is one piece of menswear that stands out – he wears a surgical mask, instantly immersing him in our current global reality. It is one of many fantastic and detailed choices made by director Giovanna Sardelli, providing context that speaks to the immediate yet timeless nature of storytelling.
The magic of this show, which takes place on December 26 in Palo Alto, lies in how it brings the wholeness of life to the fore, imperfections and everything else, and how the influence of each individual can be felt in an immeasurable way.
The hero of this story, George Bailey, is like Scrooge in reverse. The notorious curmudgeon Charles Dickens is mean and kind; George is kind and becomes angry. Scrooge has it all, but George wants it all, yearning for Bedford Falls, where he could discover the Parthenon and the Colosseum, go home and go to college, and then build 100-story skyscrapers. This is how he envisions a wonderful life.
But over and over again, George is forced to remain in his whimsical world, always choosing everyone first but himself. A deaf ear keeps him from military service, and the death of his father forces him to stay in Bedford Falls so that the family bank is not taken over by the evil master of the slums, Mr. Potter. He falls in love with kind and loving Mary and has three children, but disappointments in his life dominate his reality, and a financial scandal forces him to put an end to it all until the angel Clarence shows how wonderful his life really is.
The show’s gimmick is five fictional actors who play the residents of the flamboyant people that make up the city. Rude Freddie Fillmore (Phil Wong) means Mr. Potter and others, Lana Sherwood (Louise Sermol) works with every woman in town, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu. And the hilarious Harry “Jazbo” Haywood (Todd Cerveris) bears a heavy responsibility in several roles, but precisely as Clarence, given the monumental task of saving George to earn his wings.
These stunning twists and turns of a pleasing variety of actors are powerfully anchored by Moses Villarama, who fiercely handles George’s varied emotions without falling into the traps of imitation. Sarita Ocon shines in her take on actress Sally Applewhite, who plays the benevolent Mary. This is an unusual couple, two performers who listen to each other perfectly, building different levels of the story with aplomb.
Each performer takes full advantage of their moments to express themselves, often in the same scene. The wide-eyed charm of Cerveris as Clarence, the sincere love and concern for his subject is full of warmth. Sermola’s wide range of characteristics are funny and spiky. And the main role of Wong as the greedy Mr. Potter is a great obstacle to the internal strife that George is struggling with.
It’s delightful how Sardelli moves the piece through space in a stunning set design by Christopher Fitzer, complemented by glowing applause signs to entice a live studio audience. The show is sharply structured with a cacophony of vivid sounds that overlap with moments of radio magic: spoons turn into broken glass, immersion in a garbage can of water brings George and Clarence closer. And the many doors slamming and closing throughout the scene make the story move forward.
While this story is a reminder of how our life affects other people that we are not always aware of, this performance is more than that. What could our life be like during a pandemic without stories to fill us with hope and wonder?
In troubled times like this, a wonderful story like this puts the hype and Zuzu’s petals back into our pockets.
David John Chavez is the chairman of the American Theater Critics Association. Twitter @davidjchavez.
“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE RADIO GAME”
Adapted by Joe Landry from the 1946 film presented by TheaterWorks Silicon Valley.
Across: December 26, also available to stream on demand from December 16 to January. 2
Where: Lucy Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Duration: 1 hour, 30 minutes
COVID safety: Proof of vaccination is required and masks must be worn in the theater.
Tickets: 35-95 US dollars; www.theatreworks.org