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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Norman Moses is one of the stars of "It's a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" at the Next Act Theatre.
Norman Moses is one of the stars of "It's a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" at the Next Act Theatre. (Photo: Timothy Moder)

"It's a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" earns its wings

It is not often that you get a do-over in life, especially in the world of theater criticism.

Once you write something, it’s as if it’s chiseled in granite, there for the ages.

I was fortunate to get a do over Friday night when I saw the opening performance of "It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" at Next Act Theatre.

My do over is important because the first time around, I missed something about this play. And I’m not afraid to admit it.

The first time around, I was wrong. I don’t know exactly how to explain it. Maybe I saw something that wasn’t there or didn’t see something that was. Whatever it is, a year ago I called this a play in need of equilibrium.

Here is some of what I wrote:

"The success of radio drama was dependent on one thing more than all of the others – imagination. As the listeners sat in front of that machine, they could close their eyes and be transported to a cowboy being chased by Indians, by a damsel about to open a casket in the basement or a soldier dodging bullets.

"And that may well be my problem with this production. I'm not sure I want to watch a radio play. I mean, what's the point?

"What this play lacks is some equilibrium. Ask me to listen to "It's A Wonderful Life." OK. But if you show me the actors doing it, I need to find out something about them. It can't just be "I love you, do you love me and if not, why not?"

"The point of all of this is that these people have other lives. It's a shame we don't get to see or hear much about them."

As I read this now, after having seen the show again, I am stunned at how out of touch with the reality of the play I was.

This thoughtful and very smart adaptation, by Mary MacDonald Kerr, is such an interesting story.

It’s about a group of radio actors who are on the edge between the final days of the radio drama and the new medium of television that is sweeping them into the dustbin of history. They are about to give their last performance, a rendition of the Christmas classic, "It’s a Wonderful Life."

But weaving through the radio show performance is the tangled web of the real lives of the two principal actors, James and Judy, who play George and Mary Bailey in the radio show, and how their lives intersect and split off into paths that wind through their particular world.

One of the things I truly missed the first time I saw this was how exceedingly powerful and moving "It’s a Wonderful Life" is. The Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed movie is an indelible memory, but hearing the play this way allowed me to truly grasp the words without any pictures to get in the way.

If the best thing about radio drama was the ability to use your imagination, that is also the most honorable thing about this production. It would have been easy for MacDonald Kerr to try and recreate a pale imitation of the movie, and we would all probably have gone home happy.

But she took the challenge of letting the play breathe and expand both our hopes and our horizons. This is not a play for the timid. It’s a brave story, told bravely.

There is a back story, of course. James and Judy were lovers five years ago and then they split at his demand. She began a national tour, while he stayed as one of the biggest stars of radio. He drank and showed up just seconds before airtime.

She returns on Christmas Eve to say hello to her old friends and is pressed into service for the final show. The two of them move haltingly back toward a tempestuous union that is in stark contrast to the gentle union between George and Mary.

Perhaps the biggest joy of this play is watching an ensemble of actors at the absolute top of their game. They play so well together and so effortlessly that you can’t help but be drawn into the dramas unfolding before our very eyes.

Norman Moses and MacDonald Kerr are James and Judy and they command the stage. But equally as full of vitality and generous nature of a company that has worked together for many years are Debra Babich, David Cecsarini, Jack Forbes Wilson and Bo Johnson. With all six on stage for the whole time, it’s easy to understand that there is magic in the air.

At the end of this drama, the angel Clarence, having saved George from a suicide, earns his wings when he tells him: "George you really had a wonderful life. It would be a shame to throw it away."

Almost as much of a shame as it would have been to let my first review of this play stand. I apologize to everyone, especially readers, for my mistake.

Go see this most striking of holiday plays. It will make Christmas so much, much brighter.

"It’s A Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" runs through Jan. 5. Information and tickets are available at nextact.org.

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