A pair of ‘Wonderful’ plays
George Bailey is in trouble again.
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” the beloved holiday tale of a generous, self-sacrificing optimist whose run out of hope — and how he learns a life-changing lesson about self-worth and the value of human kindness from a bumbling angel named Clarence — is being retold this holiday season in two very different locally-produced versions, both of them streaming.
One is a musical, the other staged as a 1950s radio show, with sound-effect made from household objects. Each version is being presented with the help of theater artists from Petaluma. In both, the rich-but-bitter Mr. Potter connives and steals, poor old George learns what the world would have been like had he never been born, and a certain angel makes a bell ring by the end of the show.
“2020 has been a difficult year,” says John Shillington, who is directing a new musical version for the Theatre Arts department at Santa Rosa Junior College. “It’s easy to forget that it’s a wonderful life in spite of it all — politics, riots, COVID. This show is a fabulous reminder.”
With a new script and lyrics by Shillington, using melodies composed by Janis Dunson Wilson, the SRJC version will run for four live-streaming performances only, allowing folks from near and far to watch the show on YouTube. Wilson worked on an earlier version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 2001, commissioned by Elly Lichenstein for Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater. In that version, which ran for several holiday seasons here as a youth production before getting an adult cast run in Santa Rosa in 2012, the book and lyrics were by the late Marcy Telles, with whom WIlson collaborated on another Cinnabar musical, “The Tailor of Gloucester,” and who passed away in 2015.
Shillington’s version shakes up the story a bit, beginning in Heaven in 2020, where Clarence is teaching a class to other angels, and tells the story of helping George Bailey back in the 30s and 40s. As a musical being performed on the Zoom platform, Shillington says the show has been challenging but rewarding to put together.
“We are excited to be doing a musical on Zoom,” he says. “We’ve never seen anybody attempt it. We are boldly going where few have gone before.”
Meanwhile, Petaluma’s Carl Jordan is directing the “radio show” version at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Performing on an actual set on a physical stage, the cast — who have created a “bubble” during rehearsals — play an old-time radio acting troupe doing a version of “Wonderful Life” live from the radio station. The production will be performed live three times, with a four-camera crew recording the action, which will then be available as a pay-per-view program from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1.
Adding to the fun, Petaluma’s Trevor Hoffman will be seen on camera creating live radio sounds using practical Foley effects engineered from small opening and closing doors, bells and clackers, and boxes filled with keys and coins.
Sounds pretty “wonderful” to us.