By Mary Damiano
When I was a child growing up in Jersey City, we would go to Manhattan and do touristy things. One such trip involved a tour of Rockefeller Center and the NBC Studios. A highlight was being in a studio for a demonstration of how old radio plays were performed, and all the tools they used to create the sound effects that complemented the radio actors’ performances, giving the plays a rich, cinematic quality.
New City Players’ latest production, It’s a Wonderful Life, transports 2022 audiences back to the late 1940s, to be part of the studio audience for a radio play just like it would have been done then.
I first saw the film It’s a Wonderful Life as a teenager. Watching it late one night a week before Christmas, I felt an immediate kinship with Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey, a man whose bank account is poor but whose life is rich with friends. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. Everyone who is lucky enough to have wonderful friends carries a piece of George Bailey in their hearts.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now one of my holiday traditions. It still speaks to me, and I still cry at the same moment every time, when Harry Bailey raises his glass and says, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” I get choked up quoting that line, and I welled up with tears typing it.
After seeing the New City Players production, my companion and I had dinner at Cooper’s Hawk in the Galleria, where we were served by a young woman named Bailey. We commented on the serendipity of the show we’d just seen and her name, and discovered she’d never heard of the film. So, for the Baileys of the world not yet exposed to this classic story, here’s how it goes: George Bailey has lived his whole life in the charming town of Bedford Falls. George dreams of adventure—going to college, traveling the world, exploring, and building things, and he’s got a plan for all of it. But time and time again, George sacrifices his dreams for family obligations. He marries and he and his wife Mary have four children. Then, one Christmas Eve, George is faced, through no fault of his own, with scandal, financial ruin, and a possible prison sentence. He’s suicidal, and convinced the world would be better off without him. That’s when an angel named Clarence comes to save him and show him what the world would be like if he’d never been born. It’s heavy stuff, but don’t worry. George gets his happily ever after.
New City Players sets the mood perfectly. Audiences arriving at the theatre are greeted by a sign on the door that reads, “You are now entering Bedford Falls.” The lobby is festively decorated with old-fashioned holiday decorations and there’s complimentary hot chocolate. Scenic designers Casey Sacco and Arlette Del Toro reproduce a radio studio on the stage, complete with the sound effects props and applause and on-air signs. The costumes, also by Sacco and Del Toro, are terrific and period appropriate.
Although there are a few changes, the radio play of It’s a Wonderful Life follows the film’s story rather faithfully. Director Timothy Mark Davis and his design team have done a beautiful job of creating a mood and maintaining it throughout the audience’s entire time at the theatre. The cast members voice multiple characters and also perform corny commercials from the show’s sponsors. It’s like traveling through time. The actors all play lead and supporting characters and perform the sound effects used in the show. Sometimes, this means that actors perform the impressive and delightful feat of carrying on conversations with themselves as different characters. Carlos Aleyto is perfect as radio show host Freddie Fillmore and as villain Mr. Potter. Marlo Rodriguez is lovely as Mary. Caroline Dopson is a standout as Josephine, the supervisor of angels who narrates of the story. Noah Levine embodies the innocence of Clarence. Unfortunately, the weak link is Marcos Fuentes who plays George Bailey. On the opening weekend Saturday matinee, it was clear that Fuentes had not yet found the essence of George’s complex character, a man torn between his dreams and his obligations. Perhaps his performance will improve over the show’s run.
Still, It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit and experience an old story in a new way. And if you’re like me, bring some tissues for Harry Bailey’s end-of-show toast to his big brother George, because it still reduced me to a puddle.
New City Players production of It’s a Wonderful Life runs through December 18 at the Island City Stage space in Wilton Manors. For tickets and more information, visit NewCityPlayers.org
Photo: Noah Levine and Caroline Dopson. Photo by Ryan Arnst