The Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play has several things going for it. One, it's nostalgically familiar - who hasn't seen the It's a Wonderful Life movie at least once? Two, it's a holiday show for an audience that's more than likely in a Christmas spirit, and already jolly when sitting down to watch the play. And three, it's short, running one hour without an intermission. However, there's one major element missing from the Showboat's show that would make it really good: melodrama.
Designed as a radio show - that is, a reading of a script with sound effects, and not a full-on production with sets and movement - It's a Wonderful Like: A Live Radio Play is one of those stage opportunities that calls for at least a little overacting. The audience doesn't get to see much happen as the tale unfolds, and therefore has to hear the action in the voices and sound effects. Yet as directed by Patrick Stinson (whose efforts made the Showboat's Dracula far more interesting than the script, and Sunday in the Park with George my favorite production of the several Sundays I've seen to date), this offering misses the mark, for the most part, on both counts. The actors barely do more than read the scripts in their hands, the sound effects need to be higher in volume, and the man creating these effects on stage needs to be more prominently featured.
The latter is arguably the most significant failing, in that watching and hearing the sounds being made - dinner plates clanking during a meal, high heels across a floor - are the most fun elements of a radio show. During Friday night's performance, the actor making these sounds seemed to be right on cue with each one and was effective in delivering them, but not all of the sounds could be heard clearly over the actors' voices. (The volume on the microphone picking up the sound effects needed to be at a level that at least matched the actors' microphone levels.) I also wouldn't have complained if he'd been a bit more grand with his gestures as he tinkled flatware against dinner plates and dropped objects into a barrel of water; his creation of the sounds' embellishment of the script's words could easily be a show within the larger show.
Unfortunately, the play's program does not list the characters that each actor portrays, and being previously familiar with only three of the cast members, I cannot commend the majority by name. (The choice to list only the actors and not their roles is likely due to the size of the cast, which is at least doubled by the employment of a children's choir, and the fact that many take on several different parts.) Some of the performers, though, notably differentiate their characters with the use of accents - Irish, Boston, and a highly amusing Italian - and each accent is executed remarkably well; their accuracy and consistency are especially impressive given how young most of the actors are (and how often I've heard inconsistent accents on stage).
All of the cast members, however, could use more inflection, more emotion, in their voices. That's not to say that the It's a Wonderful Life performance, overall, is flat - it could just use a boost of passion, since the vocal acting, carrying the weight of the tale, has to compensate for the lack of movement and visual storytelling. The Showboat's work plays out more as a good reading of the script than an actual radio play. Still, It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a pleasant-enough holiday outing, mainly for its enjoyable familiarity as a Christmas tale. To make it a holiday show to remember, though, the Showboat's cast could use a touch more spirit.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.