In the November of 2014, a younger version of myself entered the Anathan Theatre at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and saw The Memo, a hilarious, moving, and visually fascinating performance directed by Dr. Monica Anderson. That was the third consecutive mainstage performance that I saw after moving to Steubenville, and it was also the performance that finally convinced me to audition for theatre practicum.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey!, directed by Prof. John H. Walker, is the first mainstage performance that I have seen from the outside since then. I’ve found a way to be involved with every show between then and now, either as crew, a bit part, or a lead actor. While I’ve been able to witness some truly stunning senior-directed one-acts during that time, this week has returned to me the gift of an experience the scale of which makes it something entirely different.
The concept of this particular show also makes it a first, in a sense. Merry Christmas, George Bailey!, subtitled A Staged Radio Play, is an adapted version of the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Not only does the modernness of the source material make for an unusual production, but the particular twist of the adaptation makes it especially remarkable: the play is set in a radio studio, with each actor playing the part of a voice actor, who in turn plays the part of one or several characters from the classic film. As an added production element, the prop microphones double as real microphones, and send the audio, not only over the house speakers, but over the campus radio airwaves as well.
On a stage that is familiar with hosting the likes of Shakespeare and Shaw, a production of this kind raises a fair share of doubts, from those both outside of the production, and from within. Could this style of performance and acting, which is intended to limit natural dramatic movement, setting, and other trappings which go without saying in conventional shows, be a rewarding experience for our student actors? Could simply standing on a studio set and reading off a script in a mostly-uninterrupted delivery of the well-known story compare to the rollicking madcap comedy of Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing? And more importantly, could watching actors reading off of scripts for two hours hold an audience’s attention?
Despite my built-in doubts, I found myself in my seat on Thursday’s opening night, grinning like an idiot throughout the entire first act, my mouth wide open, absorbing every detail that I could.
If you’re a fan of the original film, you will find much that you’re familiar with. The adapted script is remarkably similar to the film, following it almost scene for scene and line for line. The similarities begin with the fervent intercessions from George Bailey’s friends and family, followed by the angelic dialogue which results in Bailey receiving the help of Clarence, Angel Second Class. All your favorite parts of the film are here, and those who see it may find themselves laughing with delight simply at the recognition of these classic moments. When the familiar piano riff of the Charleston contest starts up at Harry Bailey’s graduation, I couldn’t help but gasp with excitement as I watched my childhood come to life.
Bailey boasts a cast upwards of two dozen actors, consisting of both veteran Anathan Theatre players, and a refreshing handful of new bodies. Narrating the story is Jeremy Seal as a dulcet-toned Radio Announcer. Continuing to impress with his vocal performances, Seal will draw you straight into a cozy fireside armchair with a voice that flows like warm cocoa, and which accurately calls back to the announcing style of the golden age of radio. In an inspired detail, Seal doubles as George Bailey’s father, Peter Bailey (here credited simply as “Pop”). Whether the radio audience will pick up on this and other similar casting choices is hard to tell, but the in-house audience is treated to a subtle bit of extra context: the implication is that the story is told from the gentle perspective of George’s late, loving father.
In his first role on our stage, John F. Rice is stunning as a young George Bailey, providing Bailey's voice for the earliest chronological scenes (he also voices George’s young son, Tommy Bailey). Rice hits every note he is given, and during the scene when he begs the distraught and violent Mr. Gower to listen to reason, my eyes were consistently filled with tears at each performance.
Disappearing into his character is a perfectly cast Maximilian Crean as Clarence, the simple but resourceful angel novice. In a nice touch, Crean’s voice actor persona is made to look like an older man, with spectacles, bow tie, and gray hair. Crean portrays the beloved character that Henry Travers gave life to in It’s a Wonderful Life as a sweetly antiquated elderly man, effortlessly embodying the character as both intimidating and humble.
The iconically perfect Mary Hatch Bailey is here played by Maria Perez in her largest role on our stage to date. Those unfamiliar with the young actress will be blown away by her charm and charisma. From the pre-show sequence where she performs classic Christmas tunes torch-song style, Perez’s control of the stage is apparent. Her performance is incredibly different from Donna Reed’s, providing a youthful tone of bubbly excitement where Reed was cool and soft-spoken. With her strong acting style, she proves to be the intellectual match of George Bailey, and the emotional pillar that the show needs.
Perhaps most remarkable is newcomer Patrick Knight, showcasing an unexpectedly nuanced performance, double casted as both Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter. The stark difference between these two characters is testament to Knight’s talent, especially as the two characters repeatedly appear in scenes together, sometimes with back-to-back lines. While Knight borrows from the performances of Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore, respectively, he makes the characters his own. Knight’s gravelly delivery conjures an image of Potter as a cruel, bloated old toad, contrasting Barrymore’s crystal-clear performance as perhaps a younger version of Potter. In turn, Knight plays Uncle Billy as less eccentric and absent-minded than Mitchell does, and this added level of lucidity brings more to the tragedy when Billy inadvertently causes the dramatic crisis.
|Gregory Demary as George Bailey and Patrick Knight as Uncle Billy - Photo by Brian Sizemore|
Of course, the largest shoes to fill are those of George Bailey himself, played in the film version in what may be one of the most iconic acting turns of all time by James Stewart. Gregory Demary, who proved his dramatic stamina as Frederick Treves in last semester’s The Elephant Man, is here to step into the title role. Those who are listening for a pitch-perfect imitation of the classic film may be put off by Demary’s naturalist rendition. You’ll find no “Jimmy Stewart voice,” or any kind of characterized accent beyond Demary’s own. This is no accident; in the Academic Night talkback, Demary revealed that he is a long-time fan of It’s a Wonderful Life, and had initially considered imitating Stewart’s unmistakable voice. With Walker’s direction, Demary left this idea behind, and chose to keep his performance as pure as possible. Just as Stewart famously portrayed the Everyman, Demary brings a new voice to the character.
I confess, I was one of those who didn’t immediately accept Demary as Bailey. Despite a fine performance, and especially because of the film-accuracy of so many other details, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be hearing Jimmy Stewart’s voice. Luckily, theatre is a living, changing animal, and I thank heaven for repeated viewings, because by the time the first weekend of shows had finished, Demary had won my heart. It’s no longer Greg I hear, but George Bailey.
The cast is fleshed out with Theatre majors in various multiple roles, notably Joshua Cash as Harry Bailey, Sean Denton as St. Joseph, and Jonathan Mesco as Ernie the Taxi Driver. Patricia Voigt is very funny as the nasally-voiced Cousin Tilly, as well as the overbearing Mrs. Hatch. Emily Flood provides a very effective dual performance as both George’s mother Mrs. Bailey, and the seductive but vapid Violet. Chris Haefner, Alicia Libetti, Emily Feldkamp, Hunter McDonnell, and Francis Héroux fill out the minor characters, adding to some very funny moments in bit parts.
Another standout is Amelia Becker as Zuzu Bailey, who manages the impressive trick of topping It’s a Wonderful Life’s Karolyn Grimes in cuteness, and this as an adult woman. Her performance may be the most heartwarming thing about this play, and I still can’t hear it without melting inside a little. Nicholas Larkins and Zoë Uhrich play Mr. and Mrs. Martini with flawless character accents, and Uhrich will have you in stitches with a gag involving a goat. Larkins also provides the voice for Nick, the other inhabitant of Martini’s bar, in a very well-executed bit of character work.
Connor Kleb is hilarious in everything he does, which is quite a bit, notably performing as the school Principal, and Eustace from the Building and Loan office. Matthew Walker (John Walker’s son) simply becomes his characters in a triple-performance in three minor but memorable parts: the Head Angel, Mr. Gower, and Bert the Cop. He shines during the honeymoon sequence, providing Bert's gentle crooning with a sly wink to the audience, and he has me laughing uncontrollably each time I hear it.
The double-or-more-casting can lead to some confusion for the in-house audience. At more than one point during my first and even second viewing, I had trouble knowing when one character ended and another began. However, these are rare moments and the casting goes a long way to adding to the fun and excitement of the show.
To Describe the actors and their vocal performances is only to mention half of the visual interest on stage. What makes the set truly memorable is the large table across the back from which the sound effects are created. On this table is a collection of visually delightful foley props, each designed by Giovanni Stroik. These props, while adding a whole new dimension to the sound of the show, are also captivating to look at when in use, from a crank-operating wind machine, to an old wicker cornucopia used for a crackling fire effect. A small prop door on the table provides opening and closing sounds, while an actual, life-size, old-fashioned prop car door mounted behind the table is used for car effects. One of my favorite effects is the sound of a rock being thrown through a glass window. This is accomplished by two operators, one moving a wooden rod quickly past the microphone creating a “whirring” effect, and the other clattering a set of wind chimes against a table to make the sound of falling glass. The show has other tricks up its sleeve that add to its soundscape. An on-set filtered microphone hidden inside an old-fashioned telephone prop provides the sound effect of any character speaking across the line, and actors use real space to create audio “dissolves” by slowly walking backwards away from a microphone.
JohnPaul Kleb is the lead foley operator, with Connor Kleb and Matthew Walker close by for most of the time. Martin Kelly, Hunter McDonnell, Autumn Phillips, and Gerard O’Rourke each also provide a number of the foley effects, while also doubling as voice actors for bit parts. The design and performances of Matthew and the Kleb brothers provide some of the most entertaining visuals of the show. JohnPaul, wearing a headset and sweater vest, confidently calls out the live-to-air countdowns, embodying the young technical producer character. Matthew’s powerful performances and easygoing swagger only add to the fun of his foley work, and what he manages to do with the simple gesture of removing or replacing his suit jacket is quite astonishing. Connor, with his suspenders and natural beard, gives off the air of a radio studio veteran, going from casual foley effect to high energy vocal performance with ease. The addition of the pipe which Kleb keeps close by is the perfect touch of character and atmosphere without becoming distracting.
Bailey definitely benefits from repeated viewings. For example, George’s speech to Potter and the Loan Board (a favorite of mine, and one that I’ve used for monologue practice myself), definitely gets richer after more than one viewing, partly due to Demary’s development of his delivery and my familiarity with it, and partly due to my own wrapping my mind around how it fits into his version of the character.
The visual side of the radio station setting only interrupts the flow of the audio at two memorable points, but these are key moments that really make all the difference. During the phone call scene at Mary Hatch’s home, George finally accepts that he is in love with Mary. In the film, this is conveyed visually by bringing the characters physically close to each other, sharing a single telephone call. Here it is alluded to by an even cleverer mechanism: Demary’s voice actor persona drops his script mid-scene, forcing him to share Perez’s script. At the talkback, it was revealed that Demary and Perez came up with this idea themselves. During my first viewing, this moment actually fooled me, and it took me a few beats to pick up on the conceit. The audience member sitting next to me was left wondering if the moment was real or staged, which I suppose is a pretty high compliment. The other similar moment, which comes around in the second act when Clarence announces that George has “never been born,” is too effective to spoil. This moment, which particularly highlights Emily Flood’s expertly calculated lighting design, brings what could (to an out-of-house listener) pass as simply an excellent radio drama sharply into the third and fourth dimensions.
These kinds of interjections may leave some of the audience scratching their heads about the stylistic intent of the performance. Are they entirely necessary, or do they take the viewer out of the story? Your mileage may vary as far as taste goes, but from where I’m sitting, the main conceit of the show is subverted just enough to keep it interesting.
Sitting in the audience, you can tell how well the production has gone over. On Sunday, I had the privilege of sitting nearby a row of religious sisters, who were obviously having an amazing time. Hearing and seeing them laugh and gasp with delight was truly satisfying. Occasionally, the novelty of watching voice actors at work distracts the audience from the story, though I don’t think this is the show’s fault. For instance, when George explodes at his children and they begin to cry, these tears are procured by three adult actors. Amusing, maybe, but is it really appropriate to laugh out loud at these moments?
The nature of the performance, which relies on house speakers to make sure the in-house audience hears the actors rather than merely the projecting voices of the actors alone, calls for a deeper involvement of the behind-the-scenes tech crew, and draws great attention to their work. The audio mixing is a delicate dance, and any misstep is very noticeable and could potentially ruin an actor’s delivery, but when done right the effect is fabulous.
There are some things that just can’t be done justice to by radio. The memorable running sight gag from the film involving a banister knob is referenced here, once, but barely registers (in a further puzzling detail, there is no foley sound effect to accompany the loose knob). I can’t help but feel it would have been more effective if it were omitted entirely. However, moments like these aren’t the norm. The back of the playbill describes art as that which “makes the invisible visible.” That phrase applies to this production with surprising aptitude, with its ability to conjure images of settings, costumes, and props, without ever showing them.
There are some unexpected problems with blending mediums; for instance, occasional bits of visual comedy come up that have nothing to do with the story. Take the moment when Knight as Potter berates George Bailey over the phone, hangs up, walks five feet downstage, and then continues the scene right beside Bailey as Uncle Billy. The audience rightly finds it delightfully funny, but the radio listeners will surely be puzzled as to why such a tense moment is getting a laugh.
Perhaps the most detrimental problem with the production is that it lacks visual pacing. This is a common issue with productions designed for radio, but the visual performance makes it especially apparent. For instance, take a scene from the film: George Bailey has just agreed to consider Mr. Potter’s job offer. They shake hands, and a five or ten second pause follows. George’s face drops. He stares at his hand, bewildered. He wipes his hand on his jacket. We can tell exactly what he’s thinking based on his expression and gestures. A silent pause of ten or even five seconds is a big no-no in radio programming, but sometimes I wish it weren’t. Because we never have a moment to breathe and look around, these moments of nuance end up rushed and lacking. The prayer in Martini’s bar, perhaps the most overtly religious moment of the film, is lost here. Without the slow camera push to a close up, and the time that the luxury of film can give it, it passes at an almost blink-and-you-miss-it pace. Similarly, when George meets the Pottersville version of Mary Hatch, the impact is gone. In the film this encounter is driven by the visuals. We see Mary Hatch, the old maid librarian, all the passion and joy drained out of her, her expression of fear as George calls out to her, the uneasy chase through the streets, the heartbreaking embrace George tries to close her in as she pulls away. None of this comes across in Bailey, though I suspect the script did the scene no favors.
But these moments are passing; Bailey hits the mark far more often than it misses it. Your heart too will be won when the cast begins the triumphant closing songs, and Feldkamp delivers the final line (hint: it’s the title of the play). Perhaps the most comprehensive comment that can be said about the performance is that it makes you want to watch the film. I’m watching the film now, as I write this article. Bailey is faithful to the source material enough to bring back the lump-in-the-throat nostalgia, but different enough to encourage one to check back in on the film that inspired it. Refreshingly, watching the film has made me look forward to seeing the performance again. Though I had gone into it doubtful, I am now very glad that a recorded audio copy of the play will exist. I hope I get to listen to it at the Christmas season every year.