A new musical adaptation by Peter Jorgensen. Arrangements and orchestrations by Nico Rhodes. Directed by Peter Jorgensen. Based on the Frank Capra film. Musical direction by Angus Kellet. A Gateway Theatre production. At the Gateway Theatre on Friday, December 7. Continues until December 31
It’s a Wonderful Life, an excellent movie, and an okay stage musical.
Frank Capra’s 1946 film is a feel-good Christmas film wrapped around a searing critique of capitalist greed. Its protagonist, George Bailey, dreams of travelling around the world, but is repeatedly thwarted by circumstance; he ends up stuck in his hometown of Bedford Falls, defending the family building-and-loan business from the predations of corporate tycoon Mr. Potter. One Christmas Eve, facing a financial crisis, middle-aged George decides to end his life—but is saved by the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence.
Peter Jorgensen’s adaptation is faithful to its source material; though he’s dressed it up with period songs (Gershwin et al.) and a couple of Christmas carols, he doesn’t gloss over the darker edges of George’s story. Still, the show struggles to find a compelling emotional centre.
The film’s George was played with flustered charm by Jimmy Stewart—a tough reference point for any actor. Nick Fontaine’s square-jawed handsomeness and buttery singing voice suit the period, but his George goes from grumpy to angry to furious without much discernible warmth underneath. Fortunately there’s no shortage of that from Erin Palm, whose voice and presence as his wife, Mary, are pure sunshine.
And Greg Armstrong-Morris works some heavenly hilarity as Clarence: he’s obliviously matter-of-fact about his age (293), sulky about not having earned his wings yet, and delightfully campy as he runs through some classic show-tune moves while singing “Heaven on Earth”. For most of the first act, he has little to do but stand by and watch the action; when he finally interacts with George partway through Act 2, the play livens up considerably.
Brian Ball’s set references the young George’s architectural ambitions, with blueprint lines and measurements on the walls. But its cavernousness works against the intimacy that the play needs, and the doorway at its centre is unforgivably awkward.
The large cast works magic with Nico Rhodes’s intricate choral arrangements, and musical director Angus Kellett ably leads a 10-piece orchestra. But the songs themselves aren’t wonderful enough to be reprised as endlessly as they are here.