This past Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to catch two local theatrical productions: St. Ambrose University's Narnia (an hour-long stage version of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe) and the Quad City Music Guild's presentation of It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical. (Both closed on Sunday, December 3.)
Despite obvious differences in subject matter and audience demographic - Narnia was geared toward the 10-and-under set, while Wonderful Life was designed for ... well, pretty much everyone else - the shows did bear a striking similarity, in that both were musical adaptations of decidedly un-musical works with enormous fan bases; St. Ambrose and Music Guild could probably have secured full houses based on the titles alone.
By the productions' curtain calls, though, they shared something else: Audiences may have entered with fond feelings for the musicals' source material, but I'm guessing they left with appreciation for other elements entirely.
In the case of Narnia, that would be the grand spectacle of the thing. As directed by Michael Kennedy, Narnia was a glorious visual treat, as evidenced by the awed rumblings of the kids (and more than a few adults) in attendance. Brad Frazee's superior lighting effects, with swirling colors and images engulfing the Galvin Fine Arts Center, were less show-offy than honestly magical, and Kristofer Eitrheim designed beautifully functional sets that were also, in and of themselves, beautiful. (The frequent scene shifts were handled spectacularly well - no uncomfortable pauses whatsoever.)
And Dianne Dye's costumes quite simply stole the show. Whenever a new character entered the scene, you could hear the audience taking a moment to marvel at Dye's latest, inspired creation, usually with a slight intake of breath followed by a giggle; they (and I) adored the first sight of the White Witch (Emily Kurash), and Mr. Tumnus (Adam Burnham), and by the time Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Joseph Feldman and Jaci Entwisle) showed up - the missus wearing hilarious, oversize bunny slippers - the kids were so audibly delighted you'd think Santa himself had arrived. And then Santa arrived. (Dan Hernandez's character here was actually called Father Christmas, but that didn't stop more than one tyke from greeting his appearance with an ecstatic "Santa!")
By contrast, the children in the It's a Wonderful Life audience appeared to watch Music Guild's production with rapt attention. We all did. The level of difficulty in bringing the Narnian universe to stage life is considerable, but I'm not sure it matches the challenge of breathing new life into a story that most of us probably know far too well; familiarity with Frank Capra's movie may bring audiences to the theatre, but good luck getting us to stop thinking of the movie during its performance. Based on the enthusiastic - and more than deserved - standing ovation that greeted Music Guild's curtain call, however, I doubt that any of us still had Capra on the brain. The crowd may have attended the show already loving It's a Wonderful Life, but quickly enough, it was clear that what we were loving was this particular It's a Wonderful Life.
When actors are flooding their roles with personality and passion - and when the audience is alert to their presence - there's an electric charge in the theatre that you can just feel, and under the superb direction of Kevin Pieper, the Wonderful Life cast never let memories of the movie do their work for them; the characters were brimming with such original flourishes, and such humanity, that is was almost as if Capra's film never existed.
The crowd rightfully adored Harold Truitt's cheerful, nimble turn as Clarence, and Todd Weber's (literal) baggy-pants comedy as the inebriated Uncle Billy, and Andy Davis' pungent meanness as Mr. Potter. And enough can't possibly be said about Mike Millar's performance as George. The actor didn't channel Jimmy Stewart so much as completely capture Stewart's soulfulness; Millar's achingly honest work - funny, ardent, and incredibly touching - was nearly breathtaking.
But the great joy of attending this Wonderful Life was that the audience was alive to so many performers, whether or not they appeared in iconic roles. You could sense their happiness every time Stephanie Perry's Violet entered the scene; playing Bedford Falls' good bad girl, Perry's warmth and sass were dazzling. The strength and professionalism of John Donald O'Shea commanded - and earned - respect, and Dolores Sierra and Jan Golz had enormous audience empathy; you were grateful for every minute of their stage time. And when Greg Golz and Jane Schmidt, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Martini, burst into a parodistic take on "O Sole Mio," the crowd's giddiness was overwhelming - you'd think we were all five years old and Santa (or Father Christmas) had just popped on-stage.
Both Narnia and It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical would have been considered successes merely by giving audiences what they expected from them. What a heartening thrill to see both giving audiences so much more.