‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ radio play

  • ‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ is opening at the Peterborough Players Thursday starring Bridget Beirne, Gus Kaikkonen, Tom Frey, Eleanor Pearson, Kraig Swartz and Leon Axt. Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, December 06, 2018 1:29PM

The Peterborough Players are bringing the classic film “It’s A Wonderful Life” to the stage this holiday season with a throwback to the bygone era of the live radio show broadcast.

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted by Joe Landry, opens Thursday and is the first of the Players’ winter season shows.

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has always been one of my favorite movies and this is a version of it that’s done as sort of like a ‘Prairie Home Companion,’” said Players artistic director Gus Kaikkonen. “So it’s a live stage show being done as if it’s a radio show in 1947. So you have all of the post war elegance of a bunch of Hollywood and Broadway people being on a radio show during that period.”

The cast includes Tom Frey and Eleanor Pearson as George and Mary Bailey, Bridget Beirne as Mrs. Bailey and Zuzu, Kraig Swartz as Clarence the Angel, Harry Bailey and Mr. Martini, Leon Axt as Henry Potter and Uncle Billy. Kaikkonen directs and also acts as a stage manager at the radio station.

The actors are also playing the actors taking on these multiple radio roles.

“They are all personalities in their own right who have been signed up to do this radio broadcast in 1947 somewhere up in one of those studios in Rockefeller Center overlooking the whole city,” Kaikkonen said.

“We’re also all jingle singers for the sponsors of the show,” Swartz adds.

This version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” brings a fun suspense to the already well-known story of George Bailey, Clarence the Angel and one desperate Christmas Eve, Kaikkonen said. And gives the audience the experience of a mostly lost art form. The old great radio stars like Jack Benny knew how to play to the live audience in the studio as well as the listener sitting at home in their living room, Kaikkonen said.

“The radio medium is about the experience of the listener. The emotional imagination of the audience,” Swartz said. “Everybody’s got such a personal connection to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and it’s personal and it’s emotional and it goes back to the very first time they saw that movie. Which was what? When they were 8, 7? And when we begin to tell the story, in radio form, I know that as they’re watching us go through this thing emotionally, I know they are experiencing the emotional content of their childhood in their minds as they watch us.”

Along with the emotional wallop the iconic holiday classic packs there is also the immediacy, thrill and suspense of a live radio broadcast and live stage performance.

“I think it’s incredibly powerful and moving. And I’m constantly struck at how my initial emotional impact of that movie from when I was a kid comes rushing back to me. Just hearing these words, these snippets, these phrases. It’s kind of inviting the audience into that experience of reminiscence, while you are watching something immediate on stage,” Swartz said. “My favorite moment is watching an argument between George Bailey’s father and Mr. Potter, both played by Leon. It’s fun to watch Leon have a fight with himself.”

Pearson said the emotional triggers for themselves include certain iconic voice, speech patterns and timbre from the movie that they know audiences will be expecting, but at the same time the actors don’t what to bring caricatures of these well-known characters to the stage.

“Playing George Bailey is really daunting because you can’t get away from Jimmy Stewart,” Frey said. “It’s not my reinterpretation of George Bailey, but it’s not a Rich Little impersonation of him either.”

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” opens Thursday and runs through Sunday, Dec. 16.

“It really is a terrific family show. It’s G rated. It’s funny. Seniors will love it. They might remember the original screening of the film. And little kids will love it because it is so theatrical,” Swartz said.

For tickets go online to www.peterboroughplayers.org or call 924-7585. Subscriptions, six-ticket winter flex passes and single tickets are available.