Holiday classic 'It's a Wonderful Life' meets radio show

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WALLA WALLA — A larger-than-life holiday classic hits the stage in the upcoming production “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” But don’t expect a Jimmy Stewart impression or even a particular scene from the film acted out at the Gesa Power House Theatre, says Director Stephanie Shine.

The nine-date production that opens Friday and runs through Dec. 23 will tell the story of a troubled George Bailey contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve in a whole different way: over the airwaves.

“You will only see Bedford Falls in your mind,” Shine explained.

Performed as a 1940s live radio broadcast in front of a studio audience, the production features an ensemble cast of five actors performing dozens of characters and producing all of the sound effects, including jingles during commercial breaks.

Reserved seating ranges from $7 for youths up to $50 for adults during eight evening and five matinee performances.

The adaptation by Joe Landry of the Frank Capra film shares the beloved tale of a Christmas miracle with a peek into 1940s-era story-telling via radio with little more than two microphones and two tables on the stage.

A hint of trivia: Capra’s film classic premiered in New York on Dec. 20, 1946, but wasn’t released to nationwide audiences until January 1947. This version — the one at the Gesa Power House Theatre — features an ensemble cast playing 1940s-era actors performing the story over the radio at a time when most of the country would have been hearing it for the first time.

The five actors — including Walla Wallans Kevin Loomer, director of Theatre Arts at Walla Walla Community College, and Brad Willcuts, a 2000 Walla Walla High School graduate who has been working professionally in New York City and all over the country — are dressed to the nines for their 13 performances.

Every ounce of the Capra story will be experienced, but audiences will also be treated to a waltz of sorts as three of the five actors switch back and forth between characters, while integrating commercial jingles and sound effects.

“It’s nothing but artists and their craft,” Shine gushed.

The performance is a stretch from traditional acting, said Jon Sprik who plays Jake Laurents performing the George Bailey role.

“I’m tempted to even want to do the scene and touch other actors and move around the space,” Sprik explained.

In this performance, however, the character is portrayed almost exclusively through a voice and making sure that there are no prolonged silences.

“If there’s dead time people can’t see what’s over the radio,” he said. “You’ve got to fill the pauses vocally rather than emotionally or visually with physical moments.”

A Michigan native, Sprik has been working the last two years in New York City. This is his first visit to Walla Walla — Washington state, for that matter.

The setup appears slightly simpler than a regular play in that there are only a few different places on stage where the actors may need to be at once. It’s more difficult, however, in the carefully orchestrated movement. At least two actors are interacting in every scene. Everyone makes sound effects. Sprik said he’s been in particular awe of a scene with Loomer, where he’s switching between Mr. Potter and Peter Bailey.

The three men are joined on stage by Seattle actresses Allison Standley and Marty Mukhalian, who made her debut with Shakespeare Walla Walla at the last Summer Festival. Shine likened the group to a little hexagon.

“In order for it to be straight, all five feet have to be on the ground,” she said.

Willcuts and Loomer share responsibility in the bulk of the characters at about 26 total. Willcuts said he accepted the opportunity to be involved when Shine, associated with Shakespeare Walla Walla since its inception, told him about the production.

He didn’t know the number of roles he’d be playing until he received a followup email from her. “It just went on and on,” he marveled.

Most notably, Willcuts’s character reads Clarence Odbody, George Bailey’s guardian angel. He’s also Bert the cop, Dr. Campbell and Horace the bank teller. Giving each a distinct voice has been one of the most challenging parts.

All of the characters are from a homogenous small New York town, he explained Their accents are essentially the same, but all with different pitch, volume, constriction and more.

“It’s almost like building a dance step,” said Wilcutts. “You have to start with volume, then move onto the timbre. It’s the little elements that make it unique.”

That skill will be a particular treat for the audience, Shine said. And behind it all will be story that has become a beloved piece of our time.

“It’s an important iconic tale,” Shine said. “All the things you look forward to are going to sweep over you. You’ll still cry. You’ll still love Clarence. It’s the essence of Christmas.”

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