Review: It’s a Wonderful life

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This holiday seasons sees a classic fight for our entertainment dollars.  Will it be the oh-so-very-funny The Drowsy Chaperone or will it be the oh-so-very-touching It’s a Wonderful Life?

To be honest, we can’t recommend one over the other.  Our suggestion is to shave a little off your holiday shopping budget and go see both!

Returning for its second year at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage, It’s a Wonderful Life is the stage adaptation of the Frank Capra Christmas classic starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

Adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian from the movie original, Grecian deftly manages the original material without merely exploiting it for its emotional impact.  And he is helped immensely,  not only by Director Dean Paul Gibson, but by the two leads Todd Talbot (George Bailey) and Jennifer Lines (Mary Bailey) who channel the essence of Stewart and Reed without becoming caricatures or outright impersonations.

Indeed we couldn’t help but be awe-struck at Talbot’s ability to take such a well-known character as George Bailey and play it with the earnestness and optimism that the character deserves.  We are sure Jimmy Stewart is smiling proudly down at Talbot.

Jennifer Lines and Todd Talbot in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life. Photo by David Cooper.
Jennifer Lines and Todd Talbot in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life. Photo by David Cooper.

Having spent his youth in Bedford Falls, George Bailey (Talbot) yearns for something more.  Travel, education and a new lease on life away from small town life.  But by luck George finds himself stuck in Bedford Falls running his family’s building and loan company and continuing the tradition of helping the residents of Bedford Falls to be homeowners.

Life for George though is not easy.  Even after marrying his childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Lines), George still struggles to reconcile his life in Bedford Falls with what might have been had he left as originally intended. But George’s eternal optimism and finding the good in most people helps.  To a point.

After managing just to keep himself, his family and his business afloat another series of unfortunate events appears to be propelling George towards ultimate disaster.  Finding no other way out than by killing himself for his life insurance, in steps Clarence (Bernard Cuffling) as an “Angel Second Class” who must show George what life might be like for the residents of Bedford Falls if he had never been born.  George experiences the old adage “you don’t know what it is like till it is gone” and it is this central theme of It’s a Wonderful Life that ultimately tugs at the heart as we, the audience, are forced to contemplate our own lot and consider how our life and actions have impacted those around us.

Besides the outstanding performances of the two leads, Bernard Cuffling, as the over-eager angel Clarence, provides a much-needed comic respite but just as easily moves into his role as serious saviour with great skill.  Erla Faye Forsyth brings a sweetness and strength to Mother Bailey and indeed she manages the first tissue of the night just by being the proud mother.

James Nesbitt’s projected videos help to set the scenes and underscore the emotional depth of what is going on within the constraints of the stage.  Like the Director and leads, Nesbitt manages to pay homage to the original material without simply copying it.

Released in 1946, it is a valid question to wonder what a show like this might be able to say to a modern audience.  But the parallels now with our economy, the sub-prime bank disaster and the various wars being fought makes this show even more relevant than any other time since its original release.

Like the movie, this stage adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life is destined to be a classic worthy of its yearly visit.

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