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Theater review: 'It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,' at Showtimers, is a delight

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wonderful life radio play

From left, Rafe Telsch, Jan Hodnett, Mark Noell, Betsy Quillen, Joshua Newman and Christie Steele-Garcia perform a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” being staged at Showtimers this weekend.

Showtimers has been doing some interesting stuff this year.

In May, with continued uncertainties surrounding COVID keeping many entertainment venues closed, Showtimers presented a play from the theater front porch to a parking lot audience in lawn chairs, a crowd no doubt thrilled at the chance to watch live theater, whatever the trade-offs might be.

Then in August, the troupe returned to its regular stage for a production of the wonderful one-woman drama “Bella, Bella,” with longtime Showtimers actress Stevie Holcomb in a tour du force performance as American social activist Bella Abzug.

Now the 70-year-old community theater is offering up “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” — a creative reimagining of one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time.

And it’s a delight.

The show was created by Joe Landry, a Connecticut playwright who has adapted a number of well-known movies and books into radio dramas for the stage. His version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” premiered in 1996 and has been widely produced ever since.

The show is set in the radio heyday of the 1940s (which is also the decade when its namesake film was released). A beautiful stage set perfectly evokes the fictional New York City radio station WBFR, where all the action takes place.

One by one the actors come into the space and chat casually as they wait for the show to begin — just another day at the office. Eventually announcer Freddie Filmore, played wonderfully to type by Rafe Telsch, addresses the audience as if we are part of the radio broadcast (which of course we are).

Along with Telsch, the rest of the small but seasoned cast wrangles multiple roles. Telsch adds Clarence, Uncle Billy and five others to his “real life” moments as Filmore. Jan Hodnett nicely portrays Peter Bailey, the Bridge Keeper and an additional eight parts. newcomer Joshua Nelson does well as Harry, Mr. Potter and Mr. Gower, among his 10 characters. Betsy Quillen brings heart to both Mary and ZuZu, plus three others. And Christie Steele-Garcia works it as Violet, Mrs. Hatch and five more.

Only Mark Noell gets to solo as George Bailey. Noell brings a steady strength to the protagonist, punctuated by the heartrending realization that he wants to live again.

Director Owen Merritt in his opening remarks advises the audience to occasionally close their eyes as if listening to the wireless, where the voices alone have to bring the characters to life. Most of their lines follow the movie very closely, although a few minor changes seem aimed at making some of the action more “visible” to radio listeners. But whether or not your eyes are closed, these players do a terrific job not just telling the iconic story but also changing personas as the fast-moving script requires.

In addition, a couple of interludes to acknowledge the show’s sponsors are crisply and charmingly rendered. And what radio broadcast would be complete without the Foley artist? Kudos to Heather O’Bryan, who works the sound props with enthusiasm and effectiveness.

At the Dec. 9 opening, director Merritt seemed particularly inspired when he welcomed the audience with a hearty “We’re back!” And in his program notes, board president Aaron Sifford writes: “This inventive take on a Christmas classic feels like just the thing we all need.”

That’s right. Atta boy, Showtimers.

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