Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center and public radio station WPPB 88.3 FM are partnering to kick off the holiday season in Southampton with It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, which is being staged this month and recorded for posterity.
Center Stage creative director Michael Disher directs and WPPB personality Bonnie Grice produces this adaptation of the classic holiday film.
Both Disher and Grice recall watching It’s a Wonderful Life as an annual family tradition during childhood, and into adulthood as well, just like many families still do. Disher says they are relying on the audience’s memory and nostalgia.
The story harkens back to a simpler, more hopeful time, after World War II. It punctuates family values, community and strength, Disher says.
Though It’s a Wonderful Life is uplifting, the plot deals with some dark topics, including depression and suicide.
“It’s all about a man examining his worth,” the director says, pointing out, “It’s amazing the number of people whose lives you touch.”
“It’s not so much about Christmas presents as it is your presence, and how much that is worth, not just to yourself, but everybody around you,” he says.
Since the film debuted in 1946, it has been adapted multiple times in different formats, including radio plays, musicals and at least one straight-forward stage play. But this adaptation, by Joe Landry, takes a different tack. The play is set in a radio studio that is putting on a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life—it’s a (radio) play within a (stage) play.
“Imagine you’re being invited to the Christmas Eve presentation of the radio show that is airing this,” Disher says. “You become part of the event.”
Landry wrote his adaptation in 1996, and later he came out with an abridged version. Disher and Grice opted for the shorter one.
Disher says he prefers the short version, which is about an hour long, because it gets to the heart of the matter.
“It’s such a quirky and homespun take on not only the movie—which of course everyone remembers and can envision instantly—but what it does is, it sets it in that time period with a stock group of characters who all happen to work at a radio station in the mid 1940s.”
“Wait till you see the costumes!” Grice exclaims. The actors dress as if they are going to work—in the 1940s— rather than as the characters they are portraying on air.
The script allows for a cast of as few as five or as large as 25, with actors taking on several roles.
This production uses 14 actors—including Grice, who plays the elder Violet, one of George Bailey’s childhood friends. Rounding out the cast are Richard Adler, Dan Becker, Susan Cincotta, Terrence Fiore, Adam Fronc, Rich Gardini, Barbara Jo Howard, John Hudson, Liam Meaney, Matthew O’Connor, Danielle Shuman, Carol Sjoholm and Susan Wojcek.
Foley artists will create all the sounds. “Every sound effect is generated by two people in this show,” Disher says. “God help them because there are over 80 effects.”
Though It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is less involved than a full stage production that doesn’t make it any less intimidating for Disher.
“It’s scary—it’s absolutely frightening,” he admits. “It’s actually stated in the script that the less you rehearse it, the better off it is. It’s pretty much going to play itself out like a live show, which is always dangerous because there are opportunities for snafus. And then, of course, when you bring in that last unknown variable, which is the audience, they can throw you, just from reactions. You just never know.”
Disher and Grice collaborated on a radio play before, back in 2011, when they made A Christmas Carol for WPPB. That presentation, which Disher directed and Grice produced, was strictly for radio, and never performed for a live audience.
During each subsequent holiday season, WPPB has rebroadcast A Christmas Carol, and Grice plans to add It’s a Wonderful Life to the holiday rotation for years to come.
They wanted to do a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life, but the logistics could not be worked out this year. Instead, the cast will come to the WPPB studio, after their stage run is complete, to make a recording.
Each venue has its own dynamic, Disher notes. “You can see it, and see one show. You can hear it, and hear a totally different show.”
The broadcast version will not have the benefit of a live audience, but it will allow for multiple takes of each line, and editing. “We can record till we get it right,” Disher says.
The recording will be heard on 88.3 FM several times in December, and be available for download at the station’s website, peconicpublicbroadcasting.org.
For the Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. there will be 100 seats set aside to provide a free pair of tickets to each veteran who asks. Call 631-287-4377.
General admission is $20. Student tickets (under 21 years old) are $10. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance by calling 631-287-4377or visiting scc-arts.org/center-stage-theatre. Showtimes are Friday, November 21, at 7 p.m., Saturday November 22, at 2, 5 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, November 23, at 2 and 5 p.m. Southampton Cultural Center is located at 25 Pond Lane, Southampton Village.