IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A LIVE RADIO PLAY: The charm alone is enough to get an angel its wings

(l-r) Fred Sullivan, Jr., Lynsey Ford, Tony Estrella, Jim O’Brien, Helena Tafuri, Andrew Iacovelli, and Milly Massey in Gamm Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.  Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

If this Gamm Theatre production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play was any more adorable, it would be licking your nose and following you home from the theatre.

How could it not be adorable? Its source material is the abundantly charming 1946 holiday film classic directed by Frank Capra and starring everyman posterchild Jimmy Stewart. The film was inspired by the uplifting 1843 Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol, another holiday classic. Its story revolves around the morally resolute George Bailey, who has given up his personal dreams in order to help others in his small community of Bedford Falls. As his world collapses, thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve bring about an intervention by his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows George all the lives he touched and what life would be like if he didn’t exist. 


It’s a Wonderful Life has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. Providence-area theatregoers have come to recognize Joe Landry’s stage adaptation, in its fifth consecutive year of production at the Gamm under the original direction of Damon Kiely, as a much-loved local yuletide tradition. The production is absolutely charming, and if that doesn’t earn an angel its wings, nothing will.

Adding to the adorable quotient is that this play – which takes the form of a 1940s live radio broadcast in front of a studio audience – realized its true destiny while facing the 2020 pandemic that shuttered theaters and canceled live productions. The Gamm partnered with The Public’s Radio (89.3fm) to broadcast It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play as an actual live radio play. 

Sure, there’s no getting around the fact that what we’re watching is a 90-minute stage reading. Performers stand, with scripts in hand, in front of vintage microphones inside a mock-up of a small radio studio. And there is really nothing new in the story or in the storytelling when compared to the previous years’ productions. In fact, quite a few performers have been seen in previous stagings in identical roles. Included is the talented and abundantly endearing Tony Estrella, who portrays George Bailey as he did in 2019, 2020, and 2021. 

But this is a really good stage reading. The surrounding radio studio has been designed with great attention to detail by Michael McGarty and augmented by Noah Beauregard’s lighting design. Actors adorn period costumes by Jessie Darrell Jarbadan that don’t so much define their characters as firmly establish a nostalgic sense of time. Live foley sound effects are created by the energetic Will Malloy and Milly Massey provides both a narrative voice and intermittent piano playing. And there is great fun to be found in watching the ambidextrous ensemble playing multiple, often dialectically and dialogically opposed characters. 

Fred Sullivan, Jr. has been given the delightful task of playing both the innocent, clueless protagonist Clarence the Angel and the villainous robber baron antagonist Henry F. Potter, who would own Bedford Falls if not for the Bailey Building and Loan. Sullivan’s transformation from one character to the other and back again is effortless and both portrayals are richly defined and completely engaging. 

He plays other, smaller roles as well but not ones nearly as challenging as Jim O’Brien’s, including the dysfunctional Uncle Billy Bailey, the distraught pharmacist Mr. Gower, the Bailey family patriarch, and the heavenly Joseph. His depictions reflect remarkable distinctiveness in voice and personality. And it seems that no one takes on more roles than Andrew Iacovelli, who plays George’s brother Harry, Ernie the cop, one of the young Bailey children, and many others with the wherewithal of a veteran voiceover artist.

Helena Tafuri, who portrays the small-town temptress Violet Bick and the naïve new bride Janie Bailey, among others, is also terrific. Lynsey Ford’s depictions of George’s love interest and eventual wife, Mary Hatch, and George’s mother Ma Bailey lack the singularity demonstrated by other actors, but she still serves up convincing characters that add so much to this production’s appeal. 

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is so charming and familiar that it would not be out of place if you and your loved ones showed up at the theatre in the same soft flannel PJs you wear while watching the film version at home on Christmas Eve. And the good folks at the Gamm are so full of the holiday spirit that they’d probably have a glass of warm milk waiting for you at the box office. 

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through Dec. 24 at Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Contact 401-723-4266,

Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle.