I must confess: When I first saw the Jimmy Stewart film It's a Wonderful Life on TV in the early 1980s, I was not a fan. Was I, I wondered, the only person on the planet who thought the story overly sentimental and a bit of a melodramatic mess? As I was to learn, I was not, for when the film was first released in 1946, some considered it a disappointing addition to director Frank Capra's oeuvre. Although I have begrudgingly come to accept the movie on its own terms over the years, it was with a bit of trepidation that I went to see the November 12 preview of the musical production A Wonderful Life at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse. Would this, my first published review, be my "outing" as a Scrooge?
Circa '21's production opens with Don Denton's solo as George Bailey, delivered on a bare stage, rising to the familiar stars of heaven in a plea of desperation. And his thrilling voice immediately whisked me into his world, creating an anticipation for what was to come. As it turns out, director/choreographer Ann Nieman has created a fast-paced, lively staging of a show that, albeit with minimal, sometimes nonexistent sets, includes the most enjoyable, heart-warming music, a talented ensemble that dances and takes on various roles in multiple costume changes, and some of our best local talent (including costume designer Gregory Hiatt and the rest of the solid production team).
This world turns out to be captivating, in large part, because Don Denton is in it. He is perfectly cast as George Bailey in voice, physical presence, and emotional range. One gladly follows him through his feelings of being trapped with big dreams in a small town, and torn between his own desires and his obligation to his family, the savings and loan, and the customers it serves. (We know George's importance, of course; without him, the greedy banker Henry Potter would own the town and everyone would owe their souls to the company store.) Denton is a wonderful talent and I loved every note he sang and every movement he made on stage.
This is also the story of Clarence, an angel who must earn his wings by helping George. Tom Walljasper's movements as the whimsical Clarence are loopy and goofy, like those of a marionette without strings (or, in this case, an angel without wings). Watching him was like being transported back into childhood, with his avuncular attempts to entertain through eccentric mugging and prancing. It appeared as if he won the child-like hearts of us all - which would exclude the angel-in-charge Matthew, whose job it is to keep Clarence focused and on task. Pat Flaherty's Matthew presents a most stolid, stern, stone-like fortress of a presence. Although impressive, one would, however, like to see the tiniest of cracks in this edifice, an acknowledgment that even the most adult of angels could sometimes be just a bit amused.
The beautiful-of-heart Sara Tubbs, perfectly cast as the loveliest of Marys - smitten with George, faithful and long-suffering - has about her a certain delicate frailty and vulnerability, and she and Denton are well-matched and lovely together. Tubbs has a sweetly exquisite voice that, at times, expressed its fullness, but in other moments her performance seemed more of a sketch, holding within itself a promise of something that, once fully realized, could be rich and beautiful.
There are many memorable scenes. Doug Kutzli, as George's father Tom, delivering a beautiful, heart-warming solo. John Payonk, wowing in a powerful Potter number, trying to convince George to come work for him. (Unlike the melodramatic, one-dimensional movie character, this portrayal made the offer seem a bit more worthy of consideration.) And two words: Erin Churchill. First appearing in a large-brimmed red hat, she then energetically dances the Charleston, performs a stint as Violet (the girl George saved from a tawdry past), and, for an all-too-brief 45 seconds or so, is exquisitely hilarious as Potter's bespectacled secretary Harriet. Someone please cast Churchill in another Harriet-type role in the future!
For those who love the movie It's a Wonderful Life, do yourselves a favor, if you can, and leave your memories at home. Accept this production on its own merit, because it works. Let's put it this way: It's a chance to enjoy a period production set in a grand old theatre built in the era in which the play is set, cocktails and conviviality, singing and dancing waiters, and Don Denton leading a very talented cast. Collect your friends, Scrooges and otherwise, and make your A Wonderful Life reservations. It's much better than TV!
Editor's note: Author Dee Canfield will be contributing reviews alongside the Reader's other new local-theatre correspondents Jeff Ashcraft, Heather Herkelman, Victoria Navarro, and Brent Tubbs.
A Wonderful Life runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through December 27, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.