"The cast hates me," says local performer Andy Davis during a recent rehearsal break. "Our first cast meeting, they were introducing us all and I said, 'Yeah, I'm playing Potter ... ,' and everybody booed."
So why is Davis so happy about it?
Probably because the Potter he's playing is the hateful, wheelchair-bound Henry Potter of Bedford Falls, and the show he's rehearsing for is the Quad City Music Guild's production of It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical. Considering people's familiarity with - and love for - the Frank Capra classic of 1946, Davis should only have worried if he didn't get booed.
Running from November 30 through December 3 at Moline's Prospect Park Auditorium, the production - like the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's current presentation of Irving Berlin's White Christmas - is a recent musical based on classic movie material; the show, with music and lyrics by Keith Ferguson and Bruce Greer, debuted in 1988 and will be making its first area appearance. (Circa '21 itself presented a different musical adaptation of the tale in the late '80s, and the Playcrafters Barn Theatre staged a nonmusical version last November.)
For the It's a Wonderful Life cast, the musical's success with audiences will be dependent on a delicate balancing act - finding ways to blend the unfamiliar with the happily familiar.
"It's a challenge," says Jennifer Sondgeroth, who plays Mary Bailey in Music Guild's production. "Because everyone I've talked to about the show has asked, 'Oh, is this part in it? Is that part in it?' It's such a well-known and well-loved movie. And I think we're all taking that into consideration, and wanting to be true to what people are expecting, what people loved."
"I don't think people will be expecting to see black-and-white," laughs frequent Music Guild performer/director Harold Truitt, who plays George Bailey's guardian angel - and de facto conscience - Clarence. "But the storyline follows the movie almost to the letter."
Such news should delight the movie's legion of fans, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of them appear among Music Guild's cast.
"I've been watching it for years," says Truitt, a veteran of such Music Guild productions as George M! and A Christmas Carol. "It's a Christmas tradition. And it's so inspiring in this age that's fast-paced and very quick; ... everything has to be immediate in this age. And to watch it [Capra's film] from that era, in black-and-white, and to see those characters come to life ... ." Truitt smiles. "It's so touching."
Mike Millar, the Music Guild veteran assigned to Jimmy Stewart's role of George, describes Capra's film as "very important to me. I remember back in the '70s. I'm sittin' there after the kids and the wife have gone to bed, and this movie comes on, and I'm watchin' it - I can't even remember the first time I saw it - but I was cryin' my eyes out at the end.
"Since then," he continues, "every chance I'd get, I'm watchin' this movie. I don't know how many times I've seen it."
And the film's frequent television appearances during the holidays - that is, before NBC purchased the exclusive broadcast rights in 1994 - have definitely contributed to its continued appeal; for her part, Sondgeroth has vivid childhood memories of holiday seasons spent with Capra's classic.
"When it used to be on TV all the time," says the veteran of Music Guild's Sugar and She Loves Me, "like several times a night on Christmas Eve, my cousin and I would watch the last scene six times in a row. For three or four years in a row. So it was definitely a big part of the Christmas season for our family.
"In fact," she laughs, "it's the movie that my dad used to show me that black-and-white movies aren't awful, you know?"
But Music Guild's leading performers aren't the only cast members with fond feelings for It's a Wonderful Life; as Sondgeroth explains, it's an affinity shared by more than three dozen Music Guild co-stars as well.
"Pretty much everybody here has some sort of history with the movie, or has seen the movie, or at least knows what a quote-unquote 'big deal' the movie is in American pop culture and the history of film and Christmastime. I mean," she laughs, "my 10-month-old has seen it, so I don't know how you can avoid it!"
Yet familiarity on the level of It's a Wonderful Life can be tricky for performers; how does one bring new life to characters who are this well-known?
Davis, a veteran of such Music Guild productions as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Scrooge: The Musical, admits that he may have an easier time than most at separating the stage version from the movie. "It wasn't a really big part of our Christmas," he says of the Capra film. "I'd seen it a couple times as a kid, but I got more interested in it as an adult."
So while Davis is familiar with Lionel Barrymore's cranky raspings as Mr. Potter, he doesn't see himself beholden to the actor's deliveries. "I'm trying to do it my own way," he says. "I'm trying not to be Lionel Barrymore." However, Davis admits that, as Potter, he does keep another inspiration in mind.
"He's almost like Satan," laughs Davis, who delights at being able to play "two shades of mean" with his character. "One is when I'm trying to offer George a job - you get to tempt him with everything he's wanted. And then when he comes to me for help, it's a whole different shade of mean, because you've won. You've crushed him." No stranger to villainous roles - at Playcrafters, he portrayed Salieri in Amadeus and a Ku Klux Klan wizard in The Foreigner - Davis calls his take on Potter "the epitome of evil."
Potter's polar opposite in temperament is, of course, Mary Bailey. And, like Davis, Sondgeroth is looking to do more than an impersonation in It's a Wonderful Life.
"My husband and I were talking after I got cast," she says, "and I said, 'I want to play Mary Bailey. I don't want to play Donna Reed playing Mary Bailey.' You want to have that flavor, but still be able to color it and make it personal."
But Sondgeroth admits that audiences "do have things that they expect to see, and should see" in a production of It's a Wonderful Life, and as her co-star Millar well knows, one of the things many audiences will expect to see is Jimmy Stewart.
The actor says, "George Bailey is Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, you know? It's the image that all people have. So while I can't be Jimmy Stewart on stage, I can be inspired by him and try to at least emulate him.
"Kevin [Pieper, the show's director] and I talked about it, and he felt that those pauses and the speech patterns of Jimmy Stewart - his stuttering - were very appropriate for George Bailey. So," Millar says before launching into a dead-on Stewart approximation, "there-there's, there-there-there-there's, there's a little bit, ev-every now and then. You-you-you put a little of that in."
Yet as those who've seen his performances in such Music Guild productions as The Wizard of Oz and Beauty & the Beast can attest, Millar is too much of an actor to be satisfied with mere mimicry. "I don't want to go too far," he says. "I want to honor his performance but also give my own performance as well. And there's such an emotional range for George. He's so up at times and then he goes so far down. ... He's kind of, like, manic-depressive."
"This is the ultimate drama," explains Truitt, "but this version is keeping parts of it very light and entertaining. There's a balance. That's what's ideal about this version."
"When this opportunity came up," says Millar, "I just wanted to try out and be involved with the show in any way I could. And then to be offered this part ... ."
The longtime It's a Wonderful Life fan grins and continues, "There's a song in this show - 'A Chance of a Lifetime.' And this was, indeed, a chance of a lifetime."
It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical will be presented at Moline's Prospect Park Auditorium November 30 through December 3. For tickets and more information, visit (http://www.qcmusicguild.com).