Five professional actors will bring Frank Capra’s classic 1946 Christmas film to when New Stages Peterborough presents It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough for six performances from December 13 to 17.
The Market Hall stage will be transformed into a 1940s radio station, with the Market Hall audience as a live “studio” audience, while actors M. John Kennedy, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Megan Murphy, Kerry Griffin, and Brad Brackenridge will play all the characters from the movie and also create all of the sound effects.
The family-friendly play was inspired by the film’s screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, and Capra himself, who also directed and produced the film. The screenplay was based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift self-published by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943, which itself was loosely based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.
Originally filmed in black and white, It’s a Wonderful Life stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has sacrificed his personal dreams to run the family business Bailey Building and Loan — a type of financial institution similar to a credit union that made home loans more broadly accessible from the 1830s to the 1930s. After the business suffers a devastating financial loss on Christmas Eve, a despondent George considers taking his own life. Clarence Odbody, a guardian angel attempting to earn his wings, intervenes to show George all the lives he had touched and what the world would be like had he not existed.
“Bringing Frank Capra’s classic film to the stage began almost twenty years ago when longtime friend and teacher Frances Kondziela asked me to pen an adaptation for her high school ensemble,” playwright Joe Landry said in 2006. “After the premiere of this original incarnation, the piece was produced by TheatreWorks in New Milford, Connecticut, and was then chosen for its first professional production at the legendary Westport Country Playhouse.”
As that original full-scale production literally attempted to replicate the film on stage, its costs skyrocketed and the production was dropped. That’s when the concept of staging the production as a live radio play set in the same time period as the original film was born.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play premiered in 1996 at Stamford Center for the Arts in Stamford, Connecticut.
Since then, the play has been produced around the world, largely through word of mouth alone, to critical acclaim — including by one of the only surviving cast members of the original film who says the famous line, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”
“I have seen the radio show performed many times and this was the best one I have ever seen,” said Karolyn Grimes, who played six-year-old Zuzu Bailey. “You have found the true magic from this story.”
Although It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, it bombed at the box office when it premiered and received mixed reviews, despite being nominated for five Academy Awards in 1947, including best actor, best picture, and best director.
“The weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life,” wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times on December 23, 1946. “Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.”
For the next three decades, It’s a Wonderful Life remained relatively forgotten. Then, in 1974, the film’s copyright expired and it fell into the public domain. This meant the film could be broadcast on television without licensing or royalty fees — which it was, year after year during the holiday season, soon becoming a tradition for many families. Capra, who passed away in 1991, said it was his favourite of the films he directed and that he screened it for his own family every Christmas.
The New Stages production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play stars eight-time Dora Mavor Moore Award actor M. John Kennedy (The Tilco Strike, Give ‘Em Hell, Fireside Munsch) as George Bailey, two-time Dora-nominated actress Ordena Stephens-Thompson (‘Da Kink in My Hair, Fairview, Harlem Duet, Sweat) as Mary Hatch and other characters, Megan Murphy (The Verandah Society, Murphy’s Law) as Violet Bick and other characters, Kerry Griffin (SlapHappy, Second City, Bad Dog Theatre Co., Globus Theatre) as Henry F. Potter and other characters, and Brad Brackenridge (comedic and dramatic actor, puppeteer, and theatre artist) as Clarence the Angel and other characters.
The play is directed by the New Stage’s artistic director Mark Wallace, a two-time Dora nominee and a 2003 recipient, with Toronto’s Gabriel Vaillant as music director and pianist, Korin Cormier as costume designer, Sean Harris and Patricia Thorne as set and lighting designers, and Esther Vincent as stage manager.
Recommended for audience members over eight years of age, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play opens on Wednesday, December 13th and runs until Sunday, December 17th, with 7 p.m. evening performances from Wednesday until Saturday and 2 p.m. matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday.
General admission tickets are $40 ($20 for students, arts workers, and those who are underemployed) and are available in person at the Market Hall box office (140 Charlotte St, Peterborough), by phone at 705-775-1503, or online at markethall.org. A 25 per cent discount is available for group sales of 10 or more tickets.
For more information about New Stages’ 2023-24 season, visit www.newstages.ca.
The original version of this story has been updated with cast photos. kawarthaNOW is proud to be media sponsor of New Stages Theatre Company’s 2023-24 season.