Tennessee Rep goes ‘on the air’ with It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Good evening ladies, gentlemen, boys, girls, young and old, old and new. Greetings from WTRT Studio A in Manhattan, New York, right here in the US of A. Tonight on WTRT Playhouse on the Air we bring you a real feel-good heart warmer perfect for this or any Christmas Eve, It’s a Wonderful Life. This is the story of none other than George Bailey, a typical American. It might be you, it might be me. He dreams of glory, he lives in hope, he loves and doubts, he rushes home on Friday nights—and only providence puts a final value on his service to humanity. Our story starts before the wars, when life was normal, shortages were generally unknown and fine institutions like tonight’s sponsors, Kreml Hair Tonic and Lux Home Products were sweeping the nation. 

From It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play adapted by Joe Landry

As soon as the “On the Air” light flickers, the magic begins.

The time is Christmas Eve 1946 at station WTRT where five talented radio players deliver all the characters (yes, ALL of them) in It’s a Wonderful Life. With its radio studio staging, the heart-tugging drama brings a new dimension to the film classic and still captures all the sweetness and joy of the original.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre rings in the holiday season with its production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Nationally one of the most produced plays of the 2007-2008 theatre season, this adaptation by Joe Landry of the film directed by Frank Capra is rapidly becoming a holiday tradition on par with the original.

It’s a Wonderful Life has always been a favorite movie of mine, and so I was never too inclined to try to put it on stage, because I figured a play version would never compare,” says Rene Copeland, producing artistic director for Tennessee Rep. “But then I noticed several regional theatres around the country were doing this adaptation that treated the story like a live radio play, which I thought was a great idea—it’s a way to tell this really terrific story without trying to mimic the movie.”  

The radio concept presents the story as a 1940s radio program--with the spectators as the studio audience--and gives the show an extra veneer of nostalgia with the ability to convey as much dramatic power than the movie. What makes this show unique is how it calls up both a nostalgia for the film it's based on and a nostalgia for a simpler time when radio was the chief source of entertainment--and one's sense of imagination was allowed to flourish.

“When I read this script I was struck anew by the basic themes of the story—the movie is so taken for granted that it’s easy to lose the impact of what it’s really about,” says Copeland. “It’s not merely a fluffy holiday story. It’s about a good man who reaches the end of his rope when it seems like doing good will never win against those who do evil in this world, and he’s redeemed by the recognition that the good fight is worth it after all. When you’re moved at the end of the story, it’s not just because we’re happy that George Bailey has discovered the value his family and friends place on him, it’s also because we sense that Good has won over Evil for once, and we all need to feel that every now and then or we’ll be jumping off bridges in droves. So this treatment of the story shakes it up a bit and allows you to have a new appreciation of an old friend.”

By placing the story in the hands of the five actors who play all of the characters, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play offers a playful duality and entertains in both sentimental and comic ways.  The piece highlights the versatility of the cast while challenging them vocally.

“Well, knowing the movie and its many characters, there is quite a bit of versatility—especially vocally--required of the actors,” says Copeland. “Fortunately for us, we have five of the best cast you’ll see on any stage.”

In addition to the voice acting, there will be a wide array of sound effects created live, and also commercials performed live, all with the aid of a pianist providing musical underscoring and accompaniment.

As with all Tennessee Rep productions, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play reflects a local product, with local actors, sets that have been designed and constructed locally, and costumes that were designed and crafted locally. The show’s set, designed by Gary Hoff, is reminiscent of a 1940s radio studio and incorporates the theater seating into the design.

“This show offered us a great chance to have fun scenically, and we plan to transform the entire Johnson Theatre into a live radio studio, circa 1946, when audiences came in to watch the broadcast,” explains Copeland.

Similarly, the costumes, designed by Trish Clark, take viewers back to the time period. Both Hoff and Clark intimately researched the time-period and the play itself for historical accuracy. These nuances have become the benchmark for Tennessee Rep.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs November 29 – December 22 in the Johnson Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, 505 Deaderick Street. Directed by Tennessee Rep’s Artist-in-Residence David Alford, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play stars Alford, Matthew Carlton, Jenny Littleton, Marin Miller, and Todd Truley.

Tickets: $10-$40 (some restrictions apply). Tickets are on sale at the TPAC Box Offices (at 505 Deaderick Street in Downtown Nashville and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in the Mall at Green Hills) and at all Ticketmaster outlets. Tickets are available by phone or internet order at the following: (615) 255-ARTS, www.ticketmaster.com, or www.tennesseerep.org.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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