Playhouse Review by Fran Syverson

Fran Syverson

Posted 12/9/11

– “It’s a Wonderful Life”—heartwarming holiday classic now at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Tree silhouettes, barren of leaves for the winter…snow softly floating…a pretty little bridge arching over a stream—what more tranquil setting can we imagine?

But wait! That man on the bridge, pacing agitatedly to and fro, finally deciding to take the plunge over the railing…that’s anything but tranquil!

To the rescue comes an angel. Yet what an unlikely angel he is—wizened, gray-haired under his slouched hat, a rumpled trench coat keeping him warm. No wings, no halo. Yes, that’s Clarence. Clarence of the beloved holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Clarence has no wings because he hasn’t earned them yet. A 2nd Class Angel, he’s been assigned to be George Bailey’s guardian angel and help him realize life is truly wonderful. It’s a daunting task. George is in despair, facing ruin after yet another financial disaster. He’s convinced his family and friends in his small home town would be better off without him, and he is on the brink of making that happen when Clarence appears.

Who among us does not know the story? How many televisions are tuned to Frank Kapra’s 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart during every holiday season?

It’s a warm, fuzzy, sentimental tale, a simplistic one. Of course it is—you expected otherwise? It extols the virtues of putting others before oneself, of working hard and being honest, of caring for one’s community, confident that the community will return the favor. But life doesn’t always work that way. George’s dreams to escape Bedford Falls, see the world, and do “big things” never come true.

Clarence takes George back to key moments in his life, times when he gave up something precious to him for the benefit of someone else. He used their honeymoon money to forestall a run on the bank. He stayed home to tend his dying father’s savings and loan business, relinquishing his college education to his brother.

Then when George declares he wishes he’d never been born, Clarence revisits those earlier moments and graphically shows George the dire outcomes that would have transpired if he hadn’t been born.

The flashbacks are accomplished with many small vignettes onstage. The scene changes are mildly distracting, but lacking a revolving stage (and the Playhouse certainly doesn’t have one!) the movements are quickly accomplished. Folding screens also facilitate setting changes. Even a pre-fab “house” is rolled on to enhance some of George’s strolls down memory lane.

Karl Maschek plays the lovable angel, Clarence.  Scott Harris brings exuberant energy as George, both in his conquer-the-world moments and when he’s facing life’s grim realities. He and his young sweetheart Mary Hatch (Nancy Young) have playful moments singing “Buffalo Gal” rather off-key, just as real people do. Alison Janes as the seductive Violet Peterson makes her play for George.

Grumpy, conniving old Henry Potter, the greedy tycoon who is out to get George’s family business, is brought to life by Jack Kandel. He’s wheeled about in an intriguingly vintage wheelchair by his goon (Matthew Herrmann.) Uncle Billy (Chuck Lacey) and Mr. Gower (Mark Mandell) play pivotal roles.

Despite a large cast, some of the actors play multiple roles. In particular, Clay Bunker is George’s brother Harry, his friend Sam Wainwright, and Mr. Welch. Matthew Bond is both Peter Bailey and young George. Gerry Orz plays the newspaper boy and Tommy Bailey. Others in two roles are Sheila Kraics, Sarah Logan, and Matthew Herrmann.  Rounding out the talented cast are Jennie Floyd, Janie Steele, Paul Bond, Chuck Lacey, Chuck Hernandez, Elaine Kratofil, Elizabeth Gray, Charlotte Hardy, Jessie Ellico Franks, Meg Momsen, and Sophia Davis.

The play is James W. Rodgers’ adaptation of a story by Phillip Van Doren Stern. Director Christina Harris designed the sound, with stage manager Michael Dessin operating it. Ward Calaway is the SMP producer. Don Bergmann designed the set, and constructed it with assistance from Calaway and Jennifer Scott. Credit Lois Tedrow for the ‘40s costume design. Assistant director Kristen Cox designed the lighting, which is operated by Maureen Davis. Anne Marie Atwan and Linda De Metrick handle the props. Christine Soldate and Calaway did the program design and layout. Kate Vandevender designed the poster art and Philip Sokoloff is publicist.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” will continue at the Sierra Madre Playhouse Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 23. Extra weeknight holiday performances are Wed. and Thurs., Dec. 21 & 22. Evening curtain times are 8 p.m. Three Sunday matinees on Dec. 4, 11, & 18 are at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $25/adults, $22 for seniors (65+) and students (13-17), and $15 for children 12 and under.

The Sierra Madre Playhouse invites theatergoers to join the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve in their annual “Toys for Tots” program. Unwrapped toy gifts may be placed in large decorated boxes in the Playhouse lobby.

The Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking is available behind the theater and in other city lots. Restaurants on Baldwin Avenue and Sierra Madre Boulevard offer pre-theater dining. For ticket reservations or information, phone (626) 355-4318, or visit the website, for online ticketing.