Live From WVL Radio Theatre: It’s A Wonderful Life at NC Stage Co
Bruce: Live From WVL Radio Theatre: It’s A Wonderful Life has landed at North Carolina Stage Co. for three weeks this year, an early Christmas present to Asheville theater audiences, since in recent years the annual show has typically had just one Asheville performance by its original producers, Immediate Theatre Project. But NC Stage Co. wisely secured the show’s writer and original star, Willie Repoley, to play the lead for this run, and it still seems as fresh and fun as when I first saw the ITP version some years ago. Since this was your first visit to WVL, I'm curious whether you felt the same.
Edwin: It’s definitely a charming show that I could easily see revisiting on an annual basis (or thereabouts). The story of four WVL studio employees in a small town in 1947 stepping up to play every part in the tale of George Bailey when a snowstorm prevents the regular cast from appearing seems like a treat for the actors as well. The range of vocal dexterity and ingenuity with sound effects demanded by the broadcast’s script, plus the wrinkle of the fictional performers’ own complex lives keeps everyone loose and limber, resulting in a grand night for all.
Bruce: That it is and, as you say, well worth revisiting — not unlike the movie, which is on a biennial rotation at my house. But do you think viewers need to be intimately familiar with the film to make the play work?
Edwin: I think prior experience with the story and characters helps, and that Repoley & Co. are intentionally playing off the content’s canon status. The mental comparisons between film and radio stage show are half the fun of this production, but the cast brings the material so vividly to life that either those with a basic familiarity or none at all should easily find themselves drawn in. I guess my question is: Are there many theatergoers who’ve yet to cross paths with the citizens of Bedford Falls to some extent?
Bruce: It’s doubtful, but I agree with you that even those with sketchy knowledge of the 1946 Jimmy Stewart classic will be drawn in without a hitch. The actors really do bring their many characters vividly to life, especially Repoley, playing George (as well as George’s brother Harry, Mr. Martini and others). When he tells off Mr. Potter, for instance, it’s a real heartfelt tirade, and I got choked up. And while the cast evokes the movie’s performers, they don’t just mimic them. They make Bedford Falls their own. Did you have a favorite resident?
Edwin: You mean other than the newborn babies, who consistently cracked me up with their “wanh-wanh”s — especially when performed by supporting-turned-multifaceted actor H. Christopher Mays (Michael MacCauley), followed by a “that’s the best I can do” shrug?
Bruce: I did enjoy your helpless chuckles at every appearance of MacCauley’s “little ones.” But who else stood out for you?
Edwin: That’s a tough question, since other than George and Mr. Potter (MacCauley again), the characters aren’t given a lot of showy moments. The others work as a true ensemble, with Maria Buchanan ably handling George’s loving wife Mary — whose unwavering support probably vaults her to “favorite” status — as well as a late gender-flipped role that’s best left unspoiled, and Samantha LeBrocq as town wild child Violet. How about you?
Bruce: Well, it would be easy to pick George or Mr. Potter or Mary or Violet, all of whom have outstanding moments, so I’ll go with Repoley’s Mr. Martini and LeBrocq’s Ernie the taxi driver — the first for his bursts of passion and the second for his (or her) charming nonchalance. And kudos to everyone for the live-on-stage sound effects, right?
Edwin: Lord, yes. I don’t know what kind of rehearsal was required to perfect the sounds, but perfect them they did! Then there’s the mystery of the play-within-the-play’s script, pages of which flutter from music stands to the floor in unison as they’re completed. Do you think there’s much or any reliance on that guiding text, or is it just another prop that builds yet another layer into the cast’s superb acting?
Bruce: I’m sure they were all “off book,” as they say, but the script pages looked real — so it’s good theater either way. And the old-fashioned sound effects were brilliant theater, since watching the radio station crew, most of them new to the job, trying to figure out how they worked as the play barreled on provided a lot of the visual spice needed to keep lively a show that mostly involves people talking into two microphones, something director Charlie Flynn-McIver clearly understands. I do wish the effects had been better mic’d, though, since some of them — the water sounds especially — were barely audible.
Edwin: Funny, I thought the water effects — I won’t say how they’re produced — were among the most clear and effective, and had me wondering if they were somehow piped in. The cast is constantly in motion, picking up an oddball item or two and making the desired noise with it, so there’s a good chance I missed a few cues, possibly due to the sound effect tables’ mics’ settings. It’s worth noting that, having seen the production, you were focusing more on the audio to see if it truly works as a radio play, so it’s understandable if you feel the back two mics were a little soft.
Bruce: I think the sound effects are great, but even in classic radio shows I’ve heard, they generally come in a little louder. It’s a small thing.
Edwin: My only gripe with the sounds is that it’s somewhat of a Christmas miracle that the three crew members who aren’t the experienced audio man are able to successfully execute the effects on their first try, with mainly their familiarity with the play guiding them. But I had so much fun watching them succeed that it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the show.
Bruce: Christmas magic! This time around I started wondering whether effects guy Lee (Repoley) has somehow engineered the disappearance of the radio station’s entire staff — except for the unseen organist, who gets a few laughs of her own — just so he could play George Bailey in the show and thus woo the boss’s daughter, Evelyn (Buchanan). That’s silly, of course, but it shows how much I bought into the framing device and the radio station drama, even though it’s such a small fraction of the running time.
Edwin: I like the idea of a nefarious Lee! Your “theory" also makes me wonder if the missing actors are putting on their own performance for their fellow train passengers as they wait for the storm to clear, complete with a different set of improvised sound effects and multiple roles. Truly, the writing and acting are so rich that I’d be glad to see additional productions and inter-station conflicts navigated by its appealing employees.
Bruce: Well, there’s already Repoley’s Halloween-themed sequel, Live From WVL Radio Theatre: The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow, which played NC Stage Co. in 2016, but there are a lot of holidays yet to cover. Maybe something inspired by Easter Parade (1948) for the spring? I can’t wait to see how they reproduce Fred Astaire’s tap dancing with skeleton keys and stock pots, or what have you. No production is a failure that has onstage sound effects!
Live From WVL Radio Theatre: It’s A Wonderful Life plays Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 15 at North Carolina Stage Co., 15 Stage Lane, Asheville. For tickets and more information, visit ncstage.org.
(Photo courtesy of North Carolina Stage Co.)