Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Delightful, Funny Radio Play of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at RVP

By Woody Weingarten

I may not believe in angels, especially bumbling ones, but I do believe in redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show fits snugly with that concept.

With at least two major wars raging at the moment, the charming 95-minute throwback is, because it’s mostly cornball, a major relief — and totally delightful.

Yes, this buoyant production by the Ross Valley Players — just like its classic Frank Capra holiday film predecessor starring Jimmy Stewart — toys with a viewer’s emotions. And because I welcome a good cry, I give the trip into Nostalgia Land four-and-a-half handkerchiefs.

The heart-warming, intermission-less play still focuses on George Bailey’s tale of love and loss (and, yes, of course, redemption). But this version also emphasizes wacky sound effects that might have been used by a snowbound 1940s radio station.

That makes the whole enchilada a lot funnier.

For a good chunk of Joe Landry’s play, Clarence Oddbody, George’s 292-year-old apprentice guardian angel, is more likeable than the guy he’s supposed to help. As anyone who’s ever turned on a TV set anywhere near the winter holidays knows, he’s sent to Earth to rescue George, whose father had willed him the family’s moribund savings-and-loan business.

For the three people on our planet who don’t yet know the storyline, heed this spoiler alert: Clarence accomplishes his mission by showing George, who’d been champing at the bit to get out of Bedford Falls where he grew up, what the town and his loved ones would have been like had he not been born. And by convincing the suicidal guy to do the right thing, the angel second class also manages to earn his wings because his actions also wrest control of the town from Mr. Potter (a purely evil dude who aims to deconstruct the savings-and-loan).

If for some demonic reason you’re looking to fault Adrian Elfenbaum’s direction, don’t waste your time — it’s almost impeccable. Rarely can a theatergoer be confused by rapid switches from one character to another to another all mouthed by a single actor.

Loren Nordlund takes a break from tinkering with the piano to voice one of 15 characters he plays. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Outstanding in the five-member ensemble are Evan Held, who flawlessly captures George and each of his changing emotions, and Loren Nordlund, who adeptly plays 15 parts and the piano. But the other three thespians — Molly Rebekka Benson, Elenor Irene Paul, and Malcolm Rodgers — are at most a quarter step behind in excellence.

Malcolm Rodgers reads from script of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Showwhile Elenor Irene Paul ponders with some sound effects gadgets. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Each actor grabs items from two large tables to concoct sound effects that range from a big tin sheet that becomes a thunderous gong to sundry women’s and men’s shoes that are used to simulate footsteps. The cast’s dexterity not only eliminates the usual need for a Foley artist onstage but adds to the fun of the production by having everybody move hither and yon with fluidity.

In unison, the quintet twice breaks into the storyline to jointly present comic singing commercials — for a Brylcreem-like hair product and a soap that can clean bugs off your windshield.

Forming a chorus in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show” are (from left) Molly Rebekka Benson, Elenor Irene Paul, Malcolm Rodgers, Loren Nordlund, and Evan Held. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Viewers are entertained, from before the radio show begins (via a recording of a vintage Jack Benny radio program) to a post-show sing-along (with audience participation) with the words of poet Robert Burns’ New Year’s Eve standard, “Auld Lang Syne.” Between those two events, sentimental moments are enhanced by lighting designer Jim Cave dimming the environment while costume designer Michael A. Berg ups audience pleasure with his ‘40s outfits that include vests, a bow tie, and silk stockings with seams in the back.

What also works perfectly is the conceit of the actors’ alternate personas, radio performers holding scripts, a device that helps them cover any lines they may have truly forgotten and could flub. This spin-off from the 1946 film was first performed in 1996 and has had more than 1,000 productions since then.

Ross Valley Players’ It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center is clearly a holiday presentation, but its upbeat message transcends any calendar dates and should be fully absorbed by all local theatergoers (and, in fact, everyone else in our divided society).

With apologies to DC Comics and those who hate parallels, I think this Radio Play is a Superplay — dazzling as a speeding moonshot. See it!


ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle,  he is the  author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmatesand Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionIt’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Book byJoe Landry
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru Dec 17th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!