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A CurtainUp Review

A Wonderful Life

Catherine Brunell and James Clow
(Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein)
The film It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed was a big flop when it opened in 1946. Had it been a success, it might have inspired a Broadway musical version by 1950. However, a strange thing happened over the next decades. Scores of adults and children who were finally catching up with the Frank Capra-directed film on television began to see something quite special about it. The film (now considered a classic) took on a mystique that eventually made watching it an annual holiday event for many families, something like The Wizard of Oz.

The musical version was created in the early 90s and has been popping up on occasion in regional theaters without finding its way to Broadway. With a book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me) and music by Joe Raposo (Sesame Street, The Great Muppet Caper), it has assuredly taken on a life of its own and without the validation of Broadway. The Paper Mill Playhouse can be proud of their production of this presumably problematic musical. It is a generally rewarding one, made significantly so by an excellent cast and a handsome production. Under the artful and crafty direction of James Brennan, A Wonderful Life is probably as close to being as wonderful as it ever will be.

Although the plot sticks to the prescribed excesses of saccharine and dour events, the staging is most notably conspicuous for the vim and vigor that energizes it and for the appealing leading and supporting players who propel it. It is, however, unnecessarily long at 2 hours and 45 minutes and some judicious pruning is in order.

The show begins in 1945 as a despairing George Bailey (James Clow) is asking God to show him the way ("George’s Prayer") out of a mess that might see him put in jail. He is even contemplating suicide. But help is on the way from the celestial plane among the glittering stars and swirling clouds of smoke. There Clarence (played by an enthusiastically jaunty and balding Jeff Brooks) has hopes of earning his wings as a first class angel. His assignment, as given to him by his humorless superior Matthew (Dale Radunz), is to go to earth and give the despondent George Bailey (James Clow) a reason to live, essentially to show him what life in Bedford Falls would be like had he never lived.

Comprised of scenes from George’s life from 1928 to 1945 —each one introduced by Clarence, our designated guide to provide the evidence that supports George’s feelings of failure — A Wonderful Life ultimately and fortuitously offers enough reasons for an audience to leave happy at the end and without entertaining any suicidal thoughts of their own.

Tall, slightly lumbering James Clow is perfect as the kind, considerate and generous hard-working George Bailey, who wants to go to Cornell College to be become an architect, see the world ("This Year Europe") and leave his home-town Bedford Falls far behind him. His angst, often expressed through his strong sturdy voice (particularly effective in the embittered Act II aria "Precious Little"”) begins when his father has a stroke and dies and he has to take over the reins of the family’s building and loan business.

His brother Harry Bailey (Jordan Cable) does get to go to college, but not before he wins the Bedford Hills High School Charleston contest, the show’s only significant dance number for the full ensemble. It is exuberantly choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and is also an opportunity for costume designer Gail Baldoni, to show off her flair for flapper wear. It is there that George is introduced to Mary (Catherine Brunell) who is destined to share his life and, of course, three very nicely melodic duets: "If I Had a Wish," "Good Night" and the title song. Brunell’s silvery soprano voice, as well as her pert presence and dramatically convincing portrayal, especially in her impassioned aria "I Couldn’t Be With Anyone But You," brings to mind the legendary Barbara Cook.

All the supporting roles are handled with aplomb. Standout is Nick Wyman who is unquestionably despicable as George’s nemesis, the unscrupulous and dastardly crook Mr. Potter. J.B. Adams, as the absent-minded Uncle Billy, Sean Martin Hingston, as the wheeling-dealing Sam Wainwright, John Jellison and Jan Pessano, as George’s parents, also create sharply defined characters.

Charlie Smith’s many impressive and very handsome settings include the Bailey’s home, Main Street, the Gymnasium, offices at the Building and Loan and Potter’s bank, and, of course, heaven —, plus many beautifully painted flats that appear and depart with an almost cinematic mobility. The special effects cannot go unmentioned, particularly the scene in which George stands in front of an on-rushing train, a la Anna Karenina. We are blinded by the train’s headlight as it grows in size as it nears him and then again the sight of the train as it speeds away.

Will the musical upset the purists who don’t want a scene or a word of dialogue changed? Undoubtedly, but others will consider any changes as refreshing. One might say, the sentiments of this musical are perhaps a bit more quaint than we are used to today. But the sight at the end of a family gathered together in love and by a lighted Christmas tree remains a timeless and comforting image.

A Wonderful Life
  Book and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
  Music by Joe Raposo
  Directed by James Brennan
George Bailey - James Clow
Matthew - Dale Radunz
Clarence - Jeff Brooks
Bob Hepner - Ed Romanoff
Bert - Kevin Bernard
Mrs. Martini - Jessica Mary Murphy*
Mr. Martini - Jerry Galante
Ernie Bishop - Robert Creighton
Violet Bick - Emilee Dupre*
Tom Bailey - John Jellison
Milly Bailey -Jan Pessano
Harry Bailey - Jordan Cable
Uncle Billy - JB Adams
Karen Zimmer - Kellie Drinkhahn*
Sam Wainwright - Sean Martin Hingston
Mary Hatch - Catherine Brunell
Henry Potter - Nickwyman
Stuart - Jeremy Davis
Walt -Todd Horman
Lillian Jean Marie
Mrs Bishop - Jessica Mary Murphy*
Ruth Reynolds - Allison Couture
Mrs Hatch - Jean Marie
Sarah - Cynthia Leigh Heim
Accountant - Ed Romanoff
Dorothy - Kellie Drinkhahn*
Harrie -t Cynthia Leigh Heim
Carter -John Jellison
Bank Teller - Jeremy Davis
Beth Bailey - Marisa Malanga*
Tommy Bailey -Frankie Dolce*
Zuzu Bailey -Sophie Rudin*
Townspeople: Jacqueline Colmer, Nigel Columbus* Allison Couture, Jeremy Davis, Kellie Drinkhahn* Emilee Dupre* Jerry Galante, Lucy Grebin; Cynthia Leigh Heim, Erin Henry* Todd Horman, Daniel J. Marconi; Jean Marie, Jessica Mary Murphy* Adrian Pena* Ed Romanoff
Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler
Sets: Charlie Smith
Costumes: Gail Baldoni
Lighting Design: Richard Winkler
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Music Director: Tom Helm
Orchestra: Keyboards/ Ed Goldschneider (Assoc. Conductor), Robert Meffe; Woodwinds/ Frank Basile, Richard Cohen, Rodney Ruth; French Horn/ Ann Mendoker; Trumpets/ David DeRienzo, Jeffery Schweikardt; Trombone/ Walter Schweikardt (Orchestra Contractor); Violin/Viola: Mary Babiarz (Concert Master); Cello/ John Furia; Bass/ Dennis Masuzzo; Percussion/ William Strauss
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
  Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J. 973/376-4343,
  Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM & 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM.
  From November 8 to December 17, 2006; openign November 12. Tickets: $19 - $68; student rush tickets are $16
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance ofNovember 12, 2006

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • George's Prayer /George & Company
  • This Year, Europe! /George, Bert, Ernie, the Martinis, Violet, The People of Bedford Falls
  • One of the Lucky Ones / Can You Find Me a House? /Tom & George
  • In a State / Sam &Townspeople
  • A Wonderful Life /Sam, Karen, George, Mary, Townspeople
  • If I Had a Wish/ George & Mary
  • Can You Find Me a House? (Reprise) /George, Tom, Townspeople
  • Wings /Clarence, Matthew, Ensemble
  • Good Night /George & Mary
  • Not What I Expected/ Mary
  • Not What I Expected (Conclusion) / Mary, George, Townspeople
  • Panic at the Building & Loan / George, Uncle Billy, Townspeople
  • A Wonderful Life (Reprise) / George & Mary
  • George's Prayer (Reprise) /George
Act Two
  • Can You Find Me a House? (Reprise) /Townspeople
  • First Class All the Way/ Potter
  • ICouldn't Be With Anyone But You / Mary
  • Welcome a Hero / Townspeople
  • Christmas Gifts / Beth &Tommy
  • Precious Little / George
  • George Bailey, You Were Never Born/ George, Clarence, Martini, Uncle Billy, Ernie, Violet, Bert, Milly, Mary, Potterville Townspeople
  • A Wonderful Life (Reprise) /George,
  • Welcome a Hero (Reprise) /Townspeople
  • Christmas Gifts (Reprise) /ÉThe Bailey Family, Townspeople
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