Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 5, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, “It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through December 23, 2022
by R.E. Smith

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
“It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” evokes a time gone by in many ways. It is a story originally written and set in the 1940’s, and is now staged as a radio show being performed in the 40’s. On a Christmas Eve when “everyman” George Bailey has hit his lowest point, he’s given the chance to examine his life and discover the impact he’s made on the big world in many important, small ways. It is a tale now just as famous and synonymous with the holiday season as Dickens' own “A Christmas Carol.” Like that seminal work, because its theme is so universal and familiar that it easily stands up to repeated viewings and interpretations, of which this adaptation is an entertaining example. 
This variation takes place on the spartan but evocative set of a forties Hartford radio sound stage, complete with microphones, “On-air” and “Applause” signs, and a sound effects technician. Five actors portray over a dozen different characters, the twist being that while we don’t need to imagine the people on stage, we are witness to a lot more behind the scenes action than the regular “listeners at home.” 

The actors are a joy to watch as they quickly switch between multiple characters, sometimes one sentence immediately after another. Nicole Shahoub and Jennifer Bareilles especially seem to be having a great time. Evan Zes hits every right note of his comedic characters. For “radio players” their facial expressions are priceless. Liam Bellman-Sharpe pulls double duty as the actual musical director and the fictional, but still genuine, Foley (sound effects) artist. His role is that of the fascinating, technical “easter egg” of the show, allowing the audience to learn all the sound effects secrets. Price Waldman’s rich baritone and command of dialects makes his chameleon-like swift transitions seem effortless. With his commanding presence, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. wisely chooses not to mimic original George Baily actor Jimmy Stewart, but instead makes the character his own, as he takes our hero from optimistic youth, to disillusioned older businessman, underlying how much the character truly values his family and friends.

There is one point in the script that breaks from the radio show format, and it is almost disappointing. Having gotten the audience fully invested in the “behind the scenes” approach, one misses the “what will happen next” excitement. Not to mention that this part of the narrative moves so quickly that it almost requires having seen the movie to fully understand and appreciate these weightier scenes.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, as evidenced by the fact that certain period “commercials” elicited some of the biggest audience reactions of the night. It’s doubtful that most members of the audience lived through or personally remember this play’s time period, but that in no way detracts from being able to enjoy the story’s affirming theme, the cast’s exuberant performances or the contagious holiday energy that the entire production embodies. “It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is a worthy addition to one’s holiday traditions.