Live radio broadcast brings “It’s Wonderful Life” to KC stage

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Courtesy of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

As a live-action radio play, “It’s a Wonderful Life–A Live Radio Play” takes the audience on a spell-binding holiday ride as the Christmas story unfolds and an angel finally earns his wings.

“It’s a Wonderful Life–A Live Radio Play” tugs at the heartstrings–just like the Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed movie version did when Frank Capra directed the black and white comedy so many years ago.

A superb cast brings the celebrated story of George Bailey and his struggles to lead a good, honorable life for himself, his family, and the entire town of New Bedford. George finds his plans for his life change because of his father’s untimely death. So, George abandons his plans, sacrifices his future to pay homage to his deceased father. His new life means running the savings and loan business that his father created. To fend off the advances of an greedy loan-shark, George faces several catastrophes to save the town and his friends.

Courtesy of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

This is the type of show that could become a family tradition for Christmas. “It’s a Wonderful Life–A Live Radio Play” just screams family tradition. The show runs through Dec. 19 at midtown’s Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre in The Warwick Theatre.

The stage manager for “It’s a Wonderful Life” announces cast calls and updates them on minutes to air time, so the audience gets the idea that they are about to see a live radio show. Members of the cast enter interspersed with audience members so that the transition from audience arrival and actor arrival becomes part of the play.

As the piano player plays some background music, the announcer introduces the cast as the characters they portray and gives brief resumes of their past performances. “It’s a Wonderful Life” maintains the texture of a radio play from the get-go.

Wonderful staging, great sound props, and a simulation of a radio broadcast help immerse the audience into the storyline. The play even uses “Applause” lights to help the audience feel of a live radio broadcast. Commercial breaks are interwoven into the show with the cast performing the radio announcements and singing jingles.

Courtesy of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

Joe Landry adapted “It’s a Wonderful Life–A Live Radio Play” from the 1946 Capra movie. To compliment the stage version, piano accompaniment comes from Brian Mitchell Bates. In pre-show entertainment, Bates plays an assortment of known Christmas carols and during the show tickles the ivories with some music from the era–including “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and other songs from the time-frame of the play’s original broadcast.

Most know the story, a Christmas tradition movie that airs numerous times throughout the holiday season. But, seeing the show as a radio play provides an intimacy and texture one does not get from a flat movie or TV screen. The MET’s live action slowly pulls the audience into the production.

The stage manager creates most of the sound effects from the back of the stage, and that’s the only weakness that this reviewer found with the production. The stage manager was blocked from view by the main microphone, but a shift with the Christmas tree would have made him visible to all and the creation of the sound effects would be more incorporated into the play.

A strong cast combines their talents to involve the audience so intently. The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission, so there is no stopping once the play begins. Again, director Karen Paisley knows how to build the emotional charge of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Obviously, the audience approved on opening night, Dec. 9.

Acting standouts, John Cleary, Brad Dowdy, Tony Beasley, and Alan Tilson receive great support from the entire cast. Angel Second Class Clarence comes to life in a charming performance by Alan Tilson. Tony Beasley plays an assortment of characters with differing facial expressions and accents but predominately keeps the audience in hand with his performance as Freddie Filmore–the master of ceremonies for the broadcast. Brad Dowdy crafts several characters from head angel to the villain–a power-hungry Mr. Potter.

The balance of the cast add the back-story, the drama, the laughs, the heartbreak, and the charm. Each character moves the story forward so that each line adds something integral to the plot.

The play stars Tony Beasley, John Cleary, Rebecca Ralstin, Christiana Coffey, Alan Tilson, Brad Dawdy, Bob Paisley, Cindy Siefer, Patty Whitlock, Brandis Outlaw, Aisatu Jallow, Rhaelin Green, Hazel Downey, Sawyer Downey, David Boncyk.

The live radio cast continues at the Warwick Theatre for one more week and ends Dec. 19. For tickets visit the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre website. Advance ticketing is suggested to avoid shut outs at the door. Proof of vaccination is required upon entrance to comply with COVID precautions.

Tags: Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, “It’s a Wonderful Life–A Radio Play”, Theater, Preforming Arts, Arts & Entertainment, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment, Kansas City, Kansas City Theater, Comedy, Christmas Theatre, Christmas shows, Live family shows, Warwick Theatre

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