Thanksgiving turkey leftovers may still be languishing in refrigerators across the city, but there’s no denying that the Christmas season is already upon us — with yuletide tunes piped in every store, houses draped in red and green flashing lights and innumerable theatrical options for the holiday season. North Carolina Stage Company has partnered with Flat Rock Playhouse this year to bring their annual production of It’s A Wonderful Life to the historic Hendersonville County Courthouse, a new location for the production. If you like your Christmas fare retro, radio-oriented and polished, George Bailey’s catharsis awaits, familiar and new all at the same time and doused in good will and cheer.
The Hendersonville County Courthouse is enjoying a new life as a venue for some of Flat Rock’s productions, first with 12 Angry Men and then A Few Good Men, and this show brings a bit more levity to its hallowed halls. It is a surprisingly comfortable, attractive and appropriate space for theatre, though the two overheard comments about it before the show began were “These are comfy seats” and “Wow, it’s cold in here.”
Those somehow unfamiliar with the basic gist of It’s A Wonderful Life should know that this is a Christmas show, with the stage resplendent in tinsel and garland and plenty of red and green, but Christmastime simply serves as a backdrop to the conclusion of the show. George Bailey is the reluctant small town hero of Bedford Falls, forgoing an adventure filled life to continue on his family’s bank business, which provides for most of the town. His trajectory spits him out at a key moment of despair, during which he is aided by an angel named Clarence, who shows him what life for everyone would have be like if George had never lived.
Though based on the film, this production, adapted by Willie Repoley, is housed in the form of a live radio show, which happens to be taking place on a snowy night when barely any actors could make it to the studio. In an effort to save the radio station from the certain doom that would befall it if the show were cancelled, four actors wing their way through the script playing all the parts aided only by a table piled with objects with which to make believable sounds.
The show is often fast-paced and enthusiastic, the action of the story heightened by the unspoken action of the actors clamoring to make it all come together. However, despite the sense of urgency in the first quarter of the show, it is easy to forget the actors don’t actually know what they’re doing, as they are usually doing it quite well. Even more comedic bits and opportunities for moment of barely missed disaster could punch up the pace and humor of the show. That being said, the production is slick and tight, emotionally evocative and intense in all the right spots, and delivers a nice inspirational punch at the end, complete with a snowy Christmas backdrop created in the imagination of each audience member by the sounds of crunching snow and jingling bells.
Michael MacCauley and Willie Repoley, two of the busiest actors in town, return again to the production this year to play dozens of roles between them. Repoley has the perfect voice to re-create the 1940s radio sound, and his George Bailey manages to pay homage to Jimmy Stewart without becoming a caricature. MacCauley’s efforts are among the most humorous and energetic of the show, particularly when he averts disaster by voicing the mother of Mary Bailey. Two newcomers to the production, Maria Buchanan and Rachelle Roberts, play all the female roles. Both women physically and vocally inhabit the roles quite well, with Buchanan providing an incredible poise and elegance, and Roberts vocalizing both an intensely sultry character and an incredibly adorable child and not even sounding like the same person.
Director Charles Flynn-McIver has crafted an (almost too) effortless production, which runs through December 23, and will feature a different professional cast (Scott Treadway, Neela Munoz, Brian Robinson and Brenna Yeary) than reviewed here starting December 8. For inspiration of the classic Christmas sort, skillfully produced in the bosom of history, this show is not to be missed,
Live from WVL Radio: It’s A Wonderful Life by Flat Rock Playhouse and N.C. Stage Company. Through Dec. 23. Historic Henderson County Courthouse, Main Street, Hendersonville. Tickets: $34. Performance times and dates vary each week, call 693-0731 or check http://www.flatrockplayhouse.org.