The ambiance at opening night of the Rep’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” was, I think, exactly as director Bob Hupp intended. Curled up in my box seat next to my husband and drinking a cup of cocoa, I was filled with nostalgia and my Christmas spirit was kicked into high gear.
The film version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” developed icon status after its debut. Rather than try to compete with the film, Joe Landry’s version is set in New York City on Christmas Eve 1946, just before the start of a live national radio broadcast of the story.
This requires all of the cast’s five actors to play at least two roles simultaneously during the 90-minute production. Each plays an actor who plays at least one role in the radio play. Altogether, the cast must create and balance more than 30 roles. Hupp added roughly 15 minutes of pre-show improvisation, which helped develop a love story between Sally Applewhite (Amy Hutchins) and Jake Laurents (Josh Thelin). It rounded out the characters and furthered the play’s conceit; without it, the actors might have been buried in all of the complicated narrative shifts the production requires.
Sound effects take a starring role; through a mix of contemporary and 1940s technology, the Rep props artists created a delightful combination of sounds that do as much work as the actors.
There are moments when Larry Daggett, who plays radio announcer Freddy Filmore and at least 13 other roles, plays three roles at once, as well as manning a piano. Daggett’s work is flawless, funny and worth the ticket price in and of itself.
Alanna Hamill Newton, who plays Lana Sherwood and a series of other characters, mirrors Daggett’s energy and enthusiasm. Hutchins works beautifully with Thelin, who plays Laurents and George Bailey. They expertly keep their “lover’s spat” from the pre-show improvisation alive as they slam doors, honk horns and crunch “snow” with packets of corn starch. By the end of the production, they manage a reconciliation that adds one more heartwarming layer to the famous final scene.