3 out of 5 starsStageworks, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, through Dec. 20. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. $30. 813-374-2416, stageworkstheatre.org.
As everyone knows (or ought to know), the Frank Capra movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life offers one idea that’s so potent, it never loses its healing power. It might be put this way: No matter how much of a botch your life may seem to you, there are innumerable people whom you’ve benefited over the years, and who’d be immeasurably worse off if it weren’t for your existence. Somewhere along the way, your few feet of flesh have salved, cheered, and maybe even rescued any number of somebodies, and the process is ongoing: Stick around and there’ll be more. So your worth isn’t just a function of your “success” in the vulgar sense; it’s a measure of how many people you’ve touched. And whether you know it or not, you’ve already touched dozens, perhaps hundreds.
Now playwright Steve Murray has adapted Capra’s film (screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) so that a single actor, playing a score of different parts, can present us with this message in the theater during the December holiday season. Inevitably, the question arises: Can such a venture provide us with anything like the experience of the movie? How does it change matters when good George Bailey, his sincere wife Mary, his nemesis Mr. Potter, and the angel-in-training Clarence are all represented by a single figure? The movie’s easy enough to find on TV during these weeks. Is there reason to search it out also in the live theater?
Having seen Stageworks’ version of the slightly renamed This Wonderful Life, I can tell you that the experience is a good one in some ways and disappointing in others. To start with the positive, Larry Alexander is a superb actor whose impersonation of multiple characters is delightfully amusing and, yes, heartwarming. He gives George Bailey a homespun innocence that alludes to, but doesn’t copy, the Jimmy Stewart original, and his take on Clarence the fledgling angel is particularly affecting. There isn’t a transformation that Alexander can’t handle, even if it means snarling for half a minute as malevolent Mr. Potter and then cooing a half-minute later as Mary Hatch, George’s earnest love interest. Nothing stops this actor: Capably directed by Karla Hartley, he shows us everything from the tenderest whisper to the most violent anger, and still manages to remind us that behind all the personae is a generous human being deeply pleased that he’s been called upon to entertain us.
But therein lies the weakness, too, of this play’s conception. Whereas the film offers us six or seven important characters to scrutinize, this Life offers only one, and we walk away from it conscious not that we’ve examined George, Mary, or Clarence, but that we’ve only really come to know… Larry. That’s not all bad. Why shouldn’t we enjoy a bravura performance that teaches us the many colors of one of our best local actors? But the experience of the film — of feeling ourselves welcomed into a noisy community threatened by a skinflint Mr. Potter and championed by a magnanimous George Bailey — just isn’t there, nor could it be with a single actor playing both sides against the middle.
So is the play’s conception flawed? Well, maybe. After seeing my share of cost-cutting theater pieces in which one or two actors play a roomful of parts, I can attest that, as an audience member, I’m always conscious of what I’m missing. It’s kind of like listening to one of those piano transcriptions of a Beethoven symphony that Liszt liked to make: I think, wow, how clever, how virtuosic, how outstanding. And immediately after: Too bad it’s not the full symphony.
The Stageworks production is further weakened by Scott Cooper’s uncharacteristically mediocre set, in which seven dollhouse-sized models represent the various homes and stores of the play’s Bedford Falls, and a small model bridge represents the spot from which pre-Clarence George contemplates suicide. But Laura Fowler costumes Alexander in a handsome three-piece suit, and Jo Averill-Snell’s lighting is typically excellent. The play is brief — about an hour and a quarter — which I think is an improvement over the somewhat over-lengthy film.
The message remains vital: Every life has its value. From the time you were born, you’ve brought joy to countless people.
You can hear that lovely tune at Stageworks this month.
You decide whether it comes through loud and clear from a single instrument.