It’s difficult to watch a play based on a well known film and not compare it to the original, especially for someone who has loved the film since their childhood. However, my love for the film was the main reason I chose to go see It’s a Wonderful Life and I did my best to keep an open mind. I have ignorantly assumed that because I loved the film so much and know its story line by heart, everyone must know it. Listening to the crowd before the show and during intermission, I was surprised to find out that many did not know what the show was about… including my plus one for the evening!
For those who do not know, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, a good natured person who always does the right thing… even when it is at his own expense. George dreamed of leaving Bedford Falls, travelling the world and becoming an architect. Unfortunately, the pitfalls of “ordinary life”, coupled with his ingrained desire to do what is best, seemingly prevent George from ever realizing this dream. That said, George is not viewing his own life correctly; he has a loving wife, four beautiful children and the admiration of almost everyone living in Bedford Falls. It’s the typical “can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario and when his uncle misplaces their business’s sizable bank deposit, George thinks the only way to get his family out of this mess is to take his own life. Enter Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sent to help George see the error of his ways by showing him what life in Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born.
The stage production, playing at Granville Island Stage, does an excellent job of depicting the message and magic behind the story of It’s a Wonderful Life in a comprehensive, very understandable manner. And while no one can play George Bailey like Jimmy Stewart, Bob Frazer is a standout in his own right. He is charismatic, charming and flawless in his portrayal. Frazer’s scenes with Jennifer Lines (Mary Bailey) depicting the courtship of Mary and George were adorable to watch as the two actors have an undeniable chemistry together. The real standout for the crowd though was Bernard Cuffling in his portrayal of Clarence, the guardian angel still trying to earn his wings. Cuffling’s comedic timing was delightful to witness and resulted in a constant smile across my face. As further proof of his talent and endearing presence, the group of young girls sitting behind me would literally exclaim “Awwww” or clap excitedly whenever he would appear on stage. The entire cast should be commended for their performances, including the children. While whoever plays Zuzu, the youngest of the Bailey children, is bound to get the most “Awww, she’s so adorable/cute” comments, all of the children were talented and adorable.
Another impressive feat of the show was the set design. The sheer amount of setting changes would make the average person a bit dizzy but the stage crew accomplished this task effortlessly. While the constant movement may have been distracting for some audience members, it was essential in order to keep the authenticity of the original film. My only minor criticism of the show relates to the actual movie scenes being projected onto the screen in the background. While I felt this was helpful for certain scenes that could not be achieved on the stage (George happily running through the streets of Bedford Falls near the end of the show) or as a replacement for large sets (the family home at 320 Sycamore) I felt that it was unnecessary for scenes that were easy to accomplish on stage. For example, the scene where Mary opens the door for George when he comes to visit her after she returns from New York was acted out on stage and on the screen behind them. As I said, it is hard to not compare the stage production to the film so to have a direct comparison right behind the actors was a bit puzzling. Again, this is a minor quibble and should not be looked upon as deterrence from this wonderful show.
The performance I attended happened to be their 200th show! Both Bernard Cuffling (Clarence) and Kyle Jespersen (Harry Bailey) have both been in every show of It’s a Wonderful Life. In honour of the 200th performance, all audience members were treated to some yummy celebratory cake after the show. What delicious way to end a fantastic evening.
It’s a Wonderful Life plays until December 29th at Granville Island Stage. Click here for more details.