It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical at Community Players

The 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life has become such a beloved classic that nearly everyone has seen it at least once and knows the story, so I’m going to assume that “spoilers” are impossible in describing the stage musical by the Community Players at Jenks Auditorium in Pawtucket. If you’ve somehow managed to escape watching the film despite its ubiquity, you really should see it before even thinking about going to the musical.

Meagan McNulty-Morales as "Mary Hatch Bailey" and Duane Langley as "George Bailey" in It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical, Community Players, Pawtucket

Meagan McNulty-Morales as “Mary Hatch Bailey” and Duane Langley as “George Bailey” in
It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical, Community Players, Pawtucket

The plot, of course, involves banker “George Bailey” (Duane Langley) standing on a bridge in his small town of Bedford Falls contemplating suicide to avoid disgrace and prison due to a cash-handling error that was not even his fault, but for the intervention of “Clarence Odbody” (Steve Morris) who is an “angel, second class” sent from heaven to convince George to want to live, despite the observation by the cruel “Henry Potter” (Brian Mulvey) that, due to his life insurance policy, George is “worth more dead than alive.” (By way of reference, $1,000 in 1946 money is worth about $11,800 in 2018 money, so the missing $8,000 cash in the story would be a little over $94,000 today.)

The first act is a recounting in flashback, supposedly for Clarence’s benefit, of George’s life history distinguished by sacrificing his own wants and dreams for others: his grand tour of Europe prevented by the death of his father “Peter” (Paul Gagne), his college plans derailed by having to take over his father’s job running the business because his “Uncle Billy” (Gagne) and “Cousin Tilly” (Sarah Stern) are incapable, using the money he saved for his own college to send his younger brother “Harry” (Alex Hatzberger) instead, and eventually using the cash from his honeymoon to stop a run on his business because his wedding day to “Mary Hatch” (Meagan McNulty-Morales) coincides with the financial panic that led to every state imposing its own “bank holiday” until the federal government could act.

The second act shows the circumstances that lead to George’s suicidal despair, causing him to say to Clarence, “I wish I had never been born.” Sensing the elegance of that idea, Clarence allows George to see what the world would be like without him: his old boss at the pharmacy, “Mr. Gower” (Brian McGovern), was imprisoned for 20 years for making a fatal mistake that George was not there to prevent; his brother Harry died as a child when he fell through the ice and George was not there to save him, and because of that hundreds of men on a troop transport were killed when Harry was not there to shoot down the kamikaze attacking them; “Violet Bick” (Leanna O’Brien) has become a prostitute and “Mr. and Mrs. Martini” (Steven Dulude, Heather Vieira) have turned to crime to support themselves because George and his bank were not there to help them; George’s mother (Karen Gail Kessler) is embittered because her brother-in-law Billy is committed to a mental institution and her only son Harry is dead; George’s wife Mary never married and as a result their children never existed; “Bert the Cop” (Ron Martin) doesn’t recognize him; Bedford Falls has changed its name to “Potterville.”

As one of the iconic Christmas stories, It’s a Wonderful Life of the 1940s is second only to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens of the 1840s: it is based on a short story published by Philip Van Doren Stern, the only notable work of fiction by an accomplished scholar who was a recognized expert on the Civil War and 19th Century America, particularly Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau. Although the original story takes place on Christmas Eve and was originally privately distributed as a kind of 24-page Christmas card with a printing of only 200 copies, the Jewish ancestry of the author and the explicit inspiration from A Christmas Carol likely motivated him to leave the mysterious visitor merely a “stranger,” like the traveling messengers of Genesis 18 – the English “angel” is derived from the Greek “angelos” meaning “messenger” – who tell the elderly Abraham and Sarah they will have a son, rather than the Christianized angel he becomes the film. Stern directly stated, according to his daughter, that he did not intend it as specifically Christian, but “it is a universal story for all people in all times.”

The ensemble in It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical, Community Players, Pawtucket

The ensemble in It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical, Community Players, Pawtucket

As a musical, it serves up a couple of dozen songs of varying quality, none rising to the level of memorable blockbuster but some quite good. Meagan McNulty-Morales has outstanding vocal ability she is given the opportunity to demonstrate in a half-dozen songs in the role of George’s wife Mary, although my personal favorite was the brief reprise of “A Place to Call Home” performed by her with the Bailey children “Janie” (Reagan Elizabeth Lapointe), “Pete” (Logan Hoard), “Tommy” (Preston Hoard), and “Zuzu” (Aryana Namias) – all remarkable singers. Leanna O’Brien as Violet is noteworthy in her solo reprise of “That’s George Bailey,” so good that it was disappointing she did not get to do more. Brian Mulvey as the wheelchair-bound Mr. Potter hit it out of the park on every song, using his silent-but-expressive nurse (Justine J. Dwyer) effectively as a kind of prop. Steve Morris as Clarence was impressive in his few songs, and his manner struck just the right note of angelic innocence, but I felt a bit sorry for him having to literally stand around for nearly the whole first act watching the action that we in the audience got seats to do. Steven Dulude acquits himself admirably in multiple roles, including George’s wealthy friend “Sam Wainwright” and bank examiner “Mr. Carter,” but only gets to sing in the role of Mr. Martini in a comic-relief song using a ridiculously fake Italian accent.

Duane Langley in the lead role is an impressive actor, pitch-perfect in his character ranging from elation to despair, but he is involved in about half of all of the songs with a number of solos and his singing is not a good match for this arduous task. Maybe I caught him on an off night as his singing is certainly competent, but the music in this show is a conscious throwback to classic Broadway showtunes rather than the modern Sondheim-inspired style where his vocals might seem more at home.

Choreography credited to Karen Gail Kessler and costumes credited to Marcia Zammarelli deserve praise for evoking the period, even performing a 1920s Charleston in “Would You Like to Dance with Me?” – especially since, as modern audiences may not realize, the popularity of the Charleston dance fad was in large part because it required women to wear short dresses that uncovered their legs.

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical by the Community Players at Jenks Auditorium is an enjoyable evening with strong performances and a familiar story, but it was not without problems. On opening night, it was evident there were sound issues the crew were scrambling to correct, including a good but too-loud live orchestra (Ron Procopio conducting and on keyboard, Brenda Young Runner on woodwind, Keith Udelson and Spencer Udelson on bass, David Pirri on trumpet, Lily Pavao on trombone, and Ryan “Buddy” Procopio on percussion) that in many cases drowned out the actors.

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical, book and lyrics by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer, directed by Vincent Lupino and musical direction by Ron Procopio, performed by the Community Players at Jenks Auditorium, 350 Division St, Pawtucket. Through Dec 9. About 2h50m including 15m intermission. Refreshments available. Free parking, handicap accessible. Box office: 401-726-6860. E-mail: info@thecommunityplayers.org Web: thecommunityplayers.net Tickets: app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=tcpri&actions=4&p=17 Facebook: facebook.com/events/2351886694825790

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