It’s a Wonderful Life: It’s a boring show

Patrick Street Productions is presenting It's a Wonderful Life at the Gateway Theatre.

Clarence (Greg Armstrong-Morris) watches Mary (Erin Palm) and George (Nick Fontaine) canoodle. (Photo by David Cooper)

Adapter and director Peter Jorgensen gets a lot of things right in this musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life at the Gateway.

The Arts Club has repeatedly trotted out Philip Grecian’s politically neutered stage adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, but Jorgensen’s script is every bit as political as the film.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about a guy named George Bailey who becomes suicidal on Christmas Eve because it looks like his company Bailey Building and Loan will collapse and he’ll go to jail. But people who love George pray for him and an angel named Clarence is assigned to avert his death if possible. When George tells Clarence that the world would have been better off without him, Clarence shows George an alternate reality in which he never existed.

And here’s the thing: George has, in fact, made the world a much better place largely because, through his building and loan company, he has built decent housing for his poor and working-class neighbours—including a new immigrant family named the Martinis. George provided the framework through which the citizens of Bedford Falls could pull together for the common good. And, if that’s not socialist enough for you, the villain of the piece is the über-capitalist—and slumlord—Mr. Potter.

This core dynamic remains crystal clear in Jorgensen’s musical revision.

The problem, to a large extent, is the music—not because it’s badly executed, but because including it really slows things down.

In the source material, there’s a built-in delay. The story starts with George’s crisis, then launches into an extended backstory in which Clarence gets to know George’s history, starting when he was a kid—so we have to wait a while before we get back to present-time action.

In this adaptation, Jorgensen stuffs no fewer than 11 musical numbers—he uses existing songs from the period—into this part of the story and Act 1 goes on for frickin’ ever. Only one of these numbers actively drives the plot in a theatrically satisfying way: that’s “Progress”, in which Potter tries to seduce George into buying into self-interest. It’s a great song by Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill and it’s cleverly staged here with a Goon (the excellent Cameron Dunster) pushing Potter about in wheelchair-bound choreography. More typically, though, we are left longing for the intermission as George and his alcoholic Uncle Billy express their high spirits—unnecessarily—in “Nice Work If You Can Get It”. Yes, the performers—Nick Fontaine as George and Jim Hibbard as Uncle Billy—are having fun but, until they’re finished, the story just sits there and so do we.

There’s not a lot of texture in this production, either. The depth and eccentricity of Jimmy Stewart’s characterization of George drives the movie. Nick Fontaine, who’s playing George in this production, has a big-boned voice, but his acting performance is disappointingly generic.

Set designer Brian Ball doesn’t help out much. In a clever touch, Ball includes measurements on the surfaces of the set pieces as if they were lifted straight from a blueprint for one of George’s buildings but, beyond that, his set is a blandly coloured series of cut-outs and its overriding feeling is of flat vacancy: there’s little feeling of period or place. And Ball has put an awkward door smack dab in the middle of things. The ways the door is positioned makes a complete schmozzle of the conventions of inside and outside.

In terms of acting, there are a couple more missed opportunities. Physically, Jovanni Sy, who plays George’s father and a sheriff, but mostly Potter, is awkward and, as Potter, he swallows his words in a strangely offhand delivery. This production also misses the boat with the character of Violet. In the film, Violet becomes increasingly sexually vulnerable and compromised; her presence provides some pleasingly dark shading. But, in this production, Imelda Gaborno’s Violet is just a non-specific young woman who likes George.

Still, the rendering of the music is a significant strength. Under Angus Kellett’s direction, the cast and orchestra deliver Nico Rhodes’s musical arrangements with precision and depth. Right off the top, the choral work in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is arresting. And what a pleasure it is to listen Erin Palm sing the role of George’s wife Mary. Palm’s tone is warm and, as I listened to her voice, I kept thinking, “It’s as big as a picture window”—maybe because it felt like it was opening up vistas. Palm is also an assured actor, so her overall contribution is impressive, especially since she is still a student at Studio 58.

Act 2 of this It’s a Wonderful Life works considerably better than Act 1. It’s shorter. We’re back in the present tense. And we finally get a healthy helping of Greg Armstrong-Morris’s Clarence. Armstrong-Morris is so vivacious that he brings the beast to life, albeit belatedly.

I guess my basic point here is that, if you’re going to make It’s a Wonderful Life into a musical, you’d better make sure the music is essential.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE Adapted by Peter Jorgensen. Arrangements and orchestrations by Nico Rhodes. Based on the Frank Capra film and the original story by Philip Van Doren Stern. Directed by Peter Jorgensen. Produced by Gateway Theatre with the support of Patrick Street Productions. At the Gateway Theatre on Friday, December 7.  Continues until December 31.Tickets.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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