By Karen Isaacs
Hartford Stage has given us another holiday present that would be great to see multiple times. It’s a Wonderful Life – a live radio play runs through Sunday, Dec. 26. You should plan on seeing it.
Usually Harford Stages gifts us with a magical production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story for Christmas – but this year, they felt the production was too big to produce safely. It has a large cast, including a number of children and backstage personnel.
So instead they opted for this production which features just five actors and the sound effects man on stage.
For those who don’t remember or know about radio and radio plays, think of it as a type of audiobook read before a studio audience who reacts.
Co-directors Melia Bensussen and Rachel Alderman do a fine job in combining the radio aspects of the show with a theatrical production.
This play isn’t new to Connecticut audiences; it’s been done at Long Wharf and several times at MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) including last year when it was available streaming. But this is a terrific rendition.
As you enter the theater – the stage is set as radio studio – stand microphones are scattered about, “applause” and “on air” signs are ready to light up. In the back is the area for the sound affects man – all types of noise making equipment.
The cast and the sound effects guy make their way and greet each other. It is Christmas Eve and the program is presenting It’s a Wonderful Life.
We are the studio audience, encouraged to laugh and applaud to help the listeners at home feel as though they are present.
Each of the cast members, plays a specific actor with a backstory and personality. Each also, with the exception of Gerardo Rodriguez play multiple characters. He plays on George and the young George. When they are not voicing their characters, we see how they interact with each other.
In the first act, Benussen and Alderman, stick to the radio play concept, keeping the actors at the microphones. But in act two, it seems as though the conceit is forgotten, and the performers move about the stage with little regard for the listeners at home.
Despite that, this is a fine production that brings out some of the humor piece and makes it less of a melodrama.
You’ll recognize Michael Preston (Scrooge in the annual show) who plays the villain Mr. Potter as well as George’s uncle and various other characters. Shirine Babb is terrific as Mary (George’s girlfriend/wife) and as St. Joseph who instructs Clarence. Evan Zes is both Clarence and some of George’s friends as well as his brother. Jennifer Bareilles manages to be seductive as Violet, childlike as Zuzu and tough as several male characters.
You can’t overlook the contribution of Leer Leary who manages the sound effects from the bell that announces Clarence’s wings to door slams, street noises and more.
Not only do you get to see a fine production of the original work, but you also get to learn something about radio.
For tickets and Covid protocols visit HartfordStage.org.
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