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It's a Wonderful Life' a wonderful experience

December 8, 2015
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Photo by Magnus Stark Photo by Magnus Stark

PTC presents live radio play version of classic holiday story

BANGOR This holiday season, an angel gets his wings at the Bangor Opera House.

The Penobscot Theatre Company invites audiences to take a trip back in time with their holiday production of Joe Landry's adaptation of the classic story 'It's a Wonderful Life.' The show featuring direction by Roderick Menzies and musical direction by Larrance Fingerhut - is running through Dec. 27.

You're almost certainly familiar with the classic Frank Capra film version of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' considering its nigh-ubiquity during the holiday season. However, this version of the tale is a little bit different, offering audiences a chance to step into the past, back to the days before television was king to the time when radio ruled the airwaves. For this show, the Bangor Opera House is no more; instead, you have stepped into the studios of radio station WPTC - located in the heart of Bangor - as they get set to broadcast a live telling of the story on Christmas Eve, 1946.

Your host is Freddie Filmore (Mark Chambers), inviting you to join him and WPTC's repertory players Harry 'Jazzbo' Heywood (Ben Layman) and Lana Sherwood (Jennifer Shepard) in welcoming a pair of incredible talents all the way from Hollywood Jake Laurents (Tony Larkin) and Sally Applewhite (Blythe Coons) to take their star turns as George Bailey and Mary Hatch, respectively. Freddie, Harry and Lana will in turn be playingeverybody else.

But this is live radio, and what kind of radio play would this be without sound effects? That's where real-time onstage Foley artist Francois 'Francis' des Bruits (Luke Cote) comes in, providing falling footsteps and closing doors, car horns and clanks and crashes every sound necessary to create the rich auditory background tapestry of Bedford Falls. Filling out the cast are a trio of cadets; Bobby (Robert Brangwynne), Betty (Elisabeth Budd) and Dottie (Lana Sabbagh) are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, smiling their way through not only their work on the stage, but in their interactions with the audience as well.

With just a quick countdown, Freddie lets us know that we're about to go live over the airwaves and then we're off to Bedford Falls, New York. That's where we learn that George Bailey, one of the town's most beloved citizens, is on the verge of ending it all. An angel is tasked with saving George, but to do so, he must learn all about the man. And so we get to see George's life play out his youth, his entry into the family business, his outsized ambitions, his relationships (particularly with Mary Hatch) as the angel Clarence gets a crash course in all things George Bailey.

We're right there with the angel as he bears witness to George's highs (his marriage, his children, his good-hearted actions) and his lows (his never-ending struggles against the miserly misanthrope Henry Potter). It's the search for and discovery of the meaning of one man's life, how the ripples of one soul's stone can reverberate throughout an entire community and beyond.

Presenting a staged radio play presents a number of obstacles; creating visual engagement and maintaining narrative clarity is no easy task when the primary driving force of the format is auditory in nature. However, the PTC team has found ways to largely overcome these not-insignificant concerns.

In the case of the former, it all starts with production value. Scenic designer Sean McClelland has transformed the Opera House stage into a shining studio straight out of the Golden Age of radio; the set is awash in bright colors and rich in detail, forming a beautiful backdrop for the proceedings. Jonathan Spencer's lighting adds warmth and even more color, providing a wonderful sense of synergy. Costume designer Kevin Koski does his usual phenomenal work with a note-perfect take on the glamor of the era, while properties designer Meredith Perry's finds complete the picture.

Of course, the staging of the piece courtesy of director Menzies and brought to bear by the talented cast also contributes mightily to the visual dynamic. One might worry that the show would feel static by definition, but every person on stage brings a constant energy that serves to bring the stage to life.

Larkin epitomizes George Bailey, bringing a combination of amiability and passion to his performance. Coons plays a sweet Mary, but one that never tips over the edge into tooth-aching territory. The two of them together are compelling to watch, especially in the more intimate moments. Layman changes characters like he's changing hats he moves from role to role with seeming effortlessness while Chambers offers up a multitude of voices that indicate an almost infinite reserve of vocal variance. Shepard is as dynamic as they come, a magnetic presence conveying volumes with voice, action and expression. Cote is on point as the ever-moving (and ever-so-slightly terrified) Foley artist, while the crew of cadets is its own brand of delightful. The story that they team up to tell is heart-wrenching and genuine and filled with touching moments both large and small.

Behind it all, we have the music provided by Fingerhut and his musicians Scott Rapaport and Lori Wingo (an original score composed by Fingerhut specifically for this production). That music along with Brandie Larkin's sound design and Cote's Foley work makes up the foundational soundscape upon which the story can build.

When all the pieces are brought together, it really is like witnessing a live radio broadcast, from the flashing applause signs to the live read 'commercials' for the show's sponsors (written by PTC's own Amy Roeder). It's a show, yes but it's also an experience.

So why not allow the talented folks at WPTC to transport you to a bygone era? This holiday season, 'It's a Wonderful Life' is wonderful indeed.

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 December 2015 00:31

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