Theater Interview: Larry Alexander's Wonderful lives

A wonderful actor on the challenge of playing 36 roles in This Wonderful Life.

Talk about a challenge: Not only is the versatile actor Larry Alexander playing 36 roles in This Wonderful Life, the adaptation of the beloved holiday film now at Stageworks, he's performing them with a broken foot. He broke it a few days before rehearsals began three weeks ago, but his doctor allowed the show to go on as long as Alexander wears "one of those big old clunky boots" when he's offstage.

Watching him in action, you'd never know there was anything wrong. In last night's opening, he moved nimbly among all his characters (which include George and Mary Bailey, their four kids, the evil banker Mr. Potter, plus the affable narrator), and showed no pain as he navigated the charming two-level set.

Still, This Wonderful Life is a big task. Last week during a rehearsal break we talked to Alexander about the project and his own wonderful life.

I know actors hate this question. But really, with 36 roles, how do you learn all those lines?
I've never had to memorize anything this intense — it’s 56 pages of just me.

How do you keep the characters straight?
They all have very different postures. The real trick is to just slow down — delineating each, finishing a line and making each one clear. Karla [Hartley, the director] is really great at saying, 'Maybe try it this way to make it make more sense' — pulling out the important parts.

This will be your second appearance in an iconic Jimmy Stewart role [he played Elwood P. Dowd in freeFall's production of Harvey earlier this year]. How do you deal with the fact that the audience has such a familiarity with Stewart's performance as George and others in the movie?
I'm doing my own versions of all these people — this is me telling the story of the movie. I’m not doing impersonations of anybody. [But] I’m thrilled to death at doing another Jimmy Stewart role.

What have been some of the most challenging moments so far?
George and Mary are literally dancing together in the beginning — it's always a challenge to slow-dance with someone when you’re both people. The kids are the hardest part. There’s one scene where it’s George, his wife, his four kids, and two different phone calls. It's fun. I'm also the narrator. The script is very well-written in that the whole thing is a description of the movie with characters interwoven into it.

What about costumes, props, set?
Today what we’re doing is we’re tracking all the props — where things come from, where they go back to. We decided early on we weren’t going to mime everything. We wanted to have as many real props as possible. I  have one costume [and] one hat that only gets used for a very short period. The jacket comes and goes. The set is a replica of Bedford Falls in model form. We do the whole thing with just one chair — it's very minimalist.

How do you explain the enduring appeal of the movie?
First of all it’s incredibly well-acted — Donna Reed’s amazing in the movie, and Jimmy Stewart's an incredible actor. [George Bailey] is a good guy who ends up on the right side of things… The greatest thing about this movie is that Potter never hands the money back over — he’s never redeemed. Everybody else comes through. George realizes that what really matters is the family — [it's] about figuring out what’s really important.

You've been a welcome sight on local stages for a while now, particularly at freeFall. [So far he's been seen there in six productions, including Harvey, The Normal Heart, The Mikado and his award-winning performance in Cabaret — "I was the only Jew in the show, and I played the Nazi."] But this is your first time doing a show in Tampa since you were a student at Plant High School, is that right?
Yes, the first time since my groundbreaking performance as Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie.

How did you get started as an actor?
I’ve been a professional actor since my first job as a kid in 1977. I got my Equity card at Alliance in 1982 while still in college at FSU and worked in New York for years and years [including] Les Miz on Broadway, Lincoln Center, Off-Broadway, regional and European.

What brought you back to this area?
I was working in Gainesville and had a friend opening a new Saks in Sarasota. I fell in love with Sarasota. My partner’s from New York, and this year we moved down here permanently.

Now living in Sarasota, Larry Alexander has appeared many times at TheaterZone in Naples. He starts rehearsals there in January for The Boy from Oz, in which he'll be playing the Australian entertainer Peter Allen (the role in which Hugh Jackman made a huge splash on Broadway).  It'll be Alexander's 16th show with the Naples company.

This Wonderful Life continues at Stageworks through Dec. 20, Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., #151, Tampa. $15-$40. 813-374-2416,

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