By Karen K. Isaacs
Not many people remember when radio stations broadcast plays performed in front of live studio audiences. The listening audience had only their imaginations, the voices of the performers, the reactions of the live audience and the sound effects to recreate the play.
Joe Landry – who is the marketing/public relations director at Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk – a number of years ago imagined a radio production of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The first production was in 1996 and it has been performed throughout the country and world ever since.
It is returning to MTC through Dec. 18.
Not only does it recapture all the most important scenes of the classic movie, it also introduces many audiences to the concept of the radio play.
As you are waiting for the play to begin, we hear the “15 minutes to air” announcements to the cast. Then the MC Freddie Filmore (played by Allan Zeller) warms up the audience by encouraging applause – yes, there are applause lights that go on to encourage the audience’s participation – and introducing the actors.
Then the show begins. Just five talented performers play all the characters changing voices to fit the character. They hold scripts and add in gestures and facial expressions that help the live audience to understand the characters more.
Director Kevin Connors has assembled a talented cast to play the roles. Each creates both the personality of the radio actor AND the characters he or she plays.
Jon-Michael Miller plays the actor Jake Laurents who has only one role: George Bailey. He is earnest and yet at times discouraged and upset. Allan Zeller is the actor Freddie Filmore who not only serves as MC but also plays the villain of the piece, Henry F. Potter and others. Jim Schilling as the actor Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood also plays a multitude of roles including that of Clarence, the angel second class.
All the female roles are played by Elizabeth Donnell as Sally Applewhite who plays Mary and others; Elisa DeMaria is Lana Sherwood who plays Violet Bick among others.
It is delightful to see the performers switch roles and voices seemingly at the drop of hat. You are never confused by who they are at any given moment.
Diane Vanderkroef has given us authentic 1940s costumes. The set by Jordan Janota replicas a radio studio though I would have liked to see the sound effects area – which the various actors take turns using to create sounds – in a more prominent area. But it may have been where I was seated that obscured the workings. Part of the fun of this piece is to see how the various sounds – doors opening, etc – are created. I also would have liked to see more interaction among the various cast members.
All in all this is a delightful way to experience both the original film story and to see how people enjoyed plays in their homes, “back in the old days.”
It’s a Wonderful Life –A Life Radio Play is at MTC, 509 Westport Ave, Norwalk, through Dec. 18. For tickets visit musictheatreofct.com.