A Wonderful Life: the Musical—a wonderful adaptation

Holiday classic translates well to stage

by Melanie Jongsma
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Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Photo: Wikipedia)

MUNSTER, Ind. (November 19, 2017) – There’s risk involved any time you dabble with the classics, and I went to A Wonderful Life: the musical somewhat prepared for disappointment. After all, how could a couple of local suburban actors (David Sajewich and Allison Sill) compare with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed? And how could It’s a Wonderful Life—a flawlessly written and beautifully acted movie—be turned into a musical? Why mess with perfection?

So I was pleasantly delighted to find myself agreeing with Artistic Director Linda Fortunato’s assessment: “All the charm, heart, and humanity of the film are brought to the stage in this musical adaptation.” A Wonderful Life in Munster is reminiscent enough of the Frank Capra classic to evoke nostalgia, but different enough to stand on its own merits.

Similarities and differences

For example, David Sajewich takes the role of George Bailey, and his physicality and some of his mannerisms are quite Stewart-like. And the sets and costumes easily put one in mind of the Bedford Falls we saw on television every night during 1980s Decembers. In fact, Andrés Enriquez could easily pass for the original Ernie the cab driver.

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From left: Andrés Enriquez conveys Ernie the cab driver in a way that evokes Frank Faylen from the film version. And David Sajewich brings enough Jimmy Stewart into his role as George Bailey to evoke nostalgia without forcing comparison. (Photo: Michael Brosilow, © Theatre at the Center)

David Perkovich’s Clarence is similar to the one Henry Travers made famous. But A Wonderful Life: the musical includes a song—”Wings”—that allows Perkovich to convey some personality in a way that is just campy enough to be fun, yet very sweet. The staging at Theatre at the Center for that number is delightful, and the angel costumes—white dresses long enough to hide the feet—make the angels seem to float around the stage.

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David Perkovich (center) as Clarence longing for angel wings. (Photo: Michael Brosilow, © Theatre at the Center)
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The costumes and simple sets—such as these from the bank scene—evoke memories of the Frank Capra movie. James Harms (left) plays Henry Potter with less venom than Lionel Barrymore did, but it works in the stage adaptation. Jim Heatherly plays Uncle Billy Bailey. (Photo: Michael Brosilow, © Theatre at the Center)

But there are some necessary differences between the movie and the stage play, and those provide enough distance to keep audiences from making a direct comparison. When George saves his brother Harry’s life, it’s an anecdote rather than a reenactment—and it’s a car accident rather than a sledding mishap. There’s no retractable dance floor, so George and Mary do not end up in the pool. And the critical suicide that Clarence saves George from? That involves a train intersection rather than a bridge. These scenes are iconic in the movie, and by reimagining them for the musical, writer Sheldon Harnick removes the nostalgia and redirects our focus to what’s important about those scenes.

Ticket information

A Wonderful Life: the musical is at Munster’s Theatre at the Center until December 23. It’s a fun adaptation of the classic Frank Capra movie that might give you and your family a fresh appreciation for an old favorite.

Performances are 2:00pm Wednesdays and Thursdays; 7:30pm Fridays; 3:00pm and 7:30pm on Saturdays; 2:30pm on Sundays; and select Thursday and Sunday evenings. Individual ticket prices range from $40–$44. While supplies last, free tickets are available to patrons of The Lansing Journal. (Click for details.)

To purchase tickets directly from the Box Office, call 219-836-3255. Group discounts are available for groups of 11 or more, and gift certificates are also available.

Theatre at the Center is located within The Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana.

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