It was a ‘Wonderful Life’ at Winneshiek.
Reviewed by Sue Langenberg
Winneshiek Playhouse of Freeport presented “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Thursday to kick off the holiday season in a wonderful way. Directed by Rich Burkinshaw, the show opened the 86th season of Winneshiek Playhouse that claims the oldest continuous community theatre in the nation.
Remarkable in its history, that is many openings, many shows, many volunteers and many applauses from an organization that relies heavily on community commitment. In the current and more permanent home on Clark Street and Walnut Avenue, that would be nearly 300 plays and over 1400 performances.
This production was not the classic film with James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore with a large cast by producer Frank Capra. Indeed the original concept morphed its way from an unsuccessful story, “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern, to a Christmas card and various other RKO Studios desks to Capra who realized the potential of this charming lesson in life. Sometimes great successes come by accident.
This show was instead a “Live from Winneshiek Radio” version of the story with the script adapted by theatre regular Matt Bruehler. While Bedford Falls, New York was yet embedded in the script along with the 1946 era, it was clearly a nostalgic setting at Studio A in Freeport, Illinois. In many respects, the Freeport connection of the story made it better, right down to mention of Donald Breed and Jeanette Lloyd as key local figures in the history of the community.
It can often be mused that classics in any genre can also hold up to changes and adaptations without compromising the original genius, as long as the inspiration remains intact. More than a century-old ballet “The Nutcracker,” for example, has been performed, re-performed, choreographed, re-choreographed and presented in thousands of different productions. It is still esteemed the same classic as it opened at the Maryinski Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892.
Farther back in history, Shakespeare is very much alive today as we revisit his genius, though most of us could hardly understand Olde English, we still appreciate the stories, dynamics and timeless humor in many different ways.
So when it comes to this radio version of Winneshiek’s ‘Wonderful Life,’ the flexibility is endless. Any number can play. With the quick change of hats, cigars, and instant sound effects, the Winneshiek cast of nine took the microphones via the Golden Age of radio and the beloved magic and humor unfolded. So convincing about quick changes of character that it was almost confusing to keep track of everyone, yet the story moved seamlessly as one gets caught up in emotional observations. Moreover, the fast-forwarding and rewinding of a lifespan was as effective as ever.
Todd Barr held down several characters with a strong presence as did Shawn Killingbeck with hats and cigars switching at lightening speed. Jacqueline Lipford held “Applause” signs, created sound effects, changed hats, sang once or twice and kept it all together. Jennifer Hail did a marvelous romantic figure as did Jeffrey Manus with his door slamming and footsteps sounds, carefully and exactly on target as well as laughable commercials in between. Kathryn Cook was delightful as sometimes crabby, sometimes pursed lips and sometimes old, depending on the hat. Theatre regular Vicki Hooper was effective in every way, especially with most bawdy wedding sobs, yet wonderfully detached in the background as an authentic radio character might have been. Fred Wagner was hysterical while Randy Cook plunk-plunked the story along at the piano.
Two more shows to go. Next Winneshiek Players production “Blithe Spirit” will be February 4, 9, 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. in 2012. Ticket reservations are firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 232-7023.