'Wonderful Life' weakens on stage

Monday, December 1, 2003

Responsibility. Loyalty. Money. Family. Dreams deferred. These are just a few of the recurring themes in the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life." The Frank Capra film, nominated for five Academy Awards, tells a story about making do and realizing what truly makes a man rich. The Lawrence Community Theatre opened its musical rendition of the tale Friday and will continue performances for the next two weekends.

George Bailey, the main character, is an adventurous and romantic young man whose dreams are seemingly dashed by his father's death and an obligation to the family business: Bailey Building and Loan. But when George finds himself in crisis, his self-sacrifices pay off big and he discovers that a wealthy man counts his riches in friends, not dollars.

While the storyline is sweet and a perfect holiday pick-me-up, the play offers little more than a chance to get out of the house.

The success of Lawrence Community Theatre's version of "It's A Wonderful Life" depended heavily on the viewer's prior sentimental attachment to the movie. It glossed over essential plot developments -- how George lost his hearing, etc. The secondary parts were played stronger than the leads and the transitions lacked fluidity.

George Bailey, as played by Russ Berland, was hard to hear. In the Lawrence Community Theatre, no seat is more than 20 feet from the stage, yet many of Berland's lines and vocals were inaudible, despite the microphone. This further complicated the plot development, and any viewer who hadn't seen the movie would have had trouble following the story.

Mary Hatch, played by Sarah Young, carried the evening with her strong singing voice, clear dialogue and convincing acting. Young's solos were the highlight of the night. They were on-pitch and understandable.

Knute Pittenger's solo as Tom Bailey was also a noteworthy performance.

The musicians performed behind the audience, and this may have contributed to the lack of communication between the instrumentalists and the singers. During many of the ensemble pieces, the singers struggled to stay with the accompaniment.

The actors doubled as stagehands, moving props and equipment on and off stage. However, the lighting seemed to cause a little trouble as some actors stumbled and bumped into things in the dark, pulling the viewer out of the experience of the play. These transitions could use some work.

While live theater is worth supporting, this show does not carry its weight. For holiday cheer, rent the movie.