“Wonderful Life” at Goodspeed Has Flaws

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The finale. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The finale. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Turning an iconic movie into a stage musical often has built in problems. Such is the case with A Wonderful Life – The Musical now at Goodspeed through November 29.

It is based on the now classic film that starred James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell that was first released in December 1946.  Though it was not a huge box office hit, it received a number of Oscar nominations. Years later, the film did achieved its classic status.  Now it is among the top ranked American films ever made.

Kristen Scott as Mary and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Kristen Scott as Mary and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The Goodspeed production was actually created in the 1980s by Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo. Harnick has written many shows including Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and others. Raposo (music) is best known for contributing numerous songs to Sesame Street.  At its inception, the show was plagued with problems over the rights to the material, but it has had productions at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (1991), a staged concert version on Broadway in 2005, followed by a full production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2007, among others.

But this production is not identical to any of those.  Director Michael Perlman has been consulting with Harnick, Raposo died in 1989, on modifications to the show.  Between the beginning of performances and the “official” opening, some material has been moved or eliminated.

One of the challenges of this material is that the leading man, George Bailey, is a “good guy” but can seem lacking in spirit or charisma.  He goes along with what is expected of him, despite his desires for something different.

I’m going to assume that almost everyone knows the plot: George Bailey stays in his small town and takes over running the local building society (like a bank) when his father unexpectedly dies despite wanting to go to Cornell to study architecture and to travel. He waits until his younger brother graduates to finally achieve his dreams, but his brother accepts a job out of town.  So he continues being the faithful steward of his father’s business and an irritant to the local millionaire who would like to take over and then shut down the building society.  As the years go by, George never forgets his dreams but also never can achieve them.  When it appears that money is missing from the bank and that he will be blamed, he contemplates suicide.

Frank Vlastnik as Clarence. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Frank Vlastnik as Clarence. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

How do we know all of this?  It is actually told in flashback as the angel Matthew is showing an inept angel, Clarence, the turning points of George’s life.  Clarence is being charged with saving George and thereby earning his angel wings. He saves George’s life and reenergizes him by showing him how the town and its people would be so much worse off if he had never lived.  All ends happily.

Michael Perlman, who is new to Goodspeed, directs.  Based on this production, I would not be excited to see another musical directed by him.

The problems begin with some of the casting and obviously with direction. Duke Lafoon plays George Bailey; while he both sings and acquits himself well, he lacks a spark that the role needs. Too often, he blends into the background.  Yes, George is the quintessential “good guy” who sacrifices for others, but you don’t feel his passion or his disappointments. The entire characterization seems too muted.  He is easily overshadowed by many of the cast.

Almost emphasizing that, his wife Mary (Kristen Scott) is portrayed as a blond – which immediately draws your eye away from George. As an audience member said, “They don’t seem to go together.”

The supporting cast is good with many playing multiple roles. I do question that George McDaniel – who was very good – played not only Matthew but also George’s father in the beginning of the show, and later a town police officer. Since his appearance doesn’t change much, you wonder if this meant to imply that Matthew was always keeping an eye on George or if there is supposed to be other significance.  That you have time to think about this while watching the show, indicates another problem.

Ed Dixon as Mr. Potter and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Ed Dixon as Mr. Potter and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

In flashier roles – that overshadow George – Logan James Hall is very good as his brother, Harry, and Michael Medieros is his uncle Billy who contributes to the problems.  In addition, Ed Dixon makes a convincing villain as Mr. Potter.

That brings us to Clarence – the angel trying to earn his wings.  Frank Vlastnik gives us an idiosyncratic performance, which you will either find charming, as I did, or annoying. Clarence is meant to be inept – nowadays we might think he has attention deficit order – so he is constantly being reminded to “focus” – but I found him appealing.

So that leads us to the music.  Somehow it doesn’t always seem to fit the period or spirit of the show.  Some numbers are good, but Raposo often seems in some ways too “modern” or “jazz” to fit the small town atmosphere.  For a show that is a tradition of the Christmas season, due to its message and that the ending occurs at the holiday time, the one Christmas song – “Christmas Gifts” gets lost in the shuffle.  We hear a snippet of it and then immediately George is singing a song to his daughter. When it gets a reprise, it is at the finale.  This song needs more attention.

Other aspects of the production live up to Goodspeed’s reputation. The choreography by Parker Esse, though limited it good.  There is only one really major dance number.  Costumes by Jennifer Caprio, scenic design by Brian Prather and lighting by Scott Bolman all do what they can to set the time – the ‘30s and ‘40s, small town feel of the show.

I just wish that George had more spark.

A Wonderful Life is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through November 29.  It’s pleasant but you wanted it to be so much more.  For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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