Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Wonderful Life

Meaningful and charming THIS WONDERFUL LIFE at Cleveland Play House

It's that time of year when local theatres are showcasing holiday themed shows. Great Lakes Theatre Festival is raising the curtain once again on the story of stingy a Ebenezer Scrooge's ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. David Sedaris' SANTA LAND DIARIES is bringing smiles at the 14th Street Theatre. Actors' Summit is showcasing a version of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL that was done 22 years ago at the Cleveland Play House. CPH, which for the last several years has focused on THE CHRISTMAS STORY, the movie version of which was filmed partly in Cleveland, has abandoned that script and is presenting a one-man version of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE renamed THIS WONDERFUL LIFE.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is one of the most popular and heartwarming holiday films. Directed by Frank Capra, the cinema version starred James Stewart, who considered the role to be the favorite of his long career.

Interestingly, the original 1946 film was a financial flop. It only rose to its present cult status when, in 1974, it went into public domain and TV stations could air it for free. And show it they have done, over and over and over. It has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and placed number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was based on Philip VanDoren Stern's THE GREATEST GIFT, which tells the story of George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of Clarence, his guardian angel, who shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community. The story ends as George finds a gift of a book from Clarence inscribed "Dear George, Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence." A bell rings and George's daughter reminds him that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. George looks skyward, to the winkling stars above and says, "Atta boy, Clarence."

The CPH production is a one-man, intermissionless show. The charming and talented James Leaming plays all the characters. It's a daunting job. For 90-minutes Leaming not only emotes all of the play's lines, but dives off a platform, goes shovel sliding, moves the set pieces, plays one or two or three people at one time, and holds the audience captive.

Leaming starts to charm audience members as they file into the theatre. Talking to those near the stage, learning their names (which he uses in the performance's first couple of minutes), he makes personal contact that perfectly fits the folksy show. The audience has no trouble differentiating the many characters. Leaming changes his voice and body to fit each. From the Jimmy Stewart imitation, to the voice tone of Henry Travers, who portrayed Clarence in the film, he is character-right.

THIS WONDERFUL LIFE was conceived by Mark Setlock and written by Steve Murray. Director Peter Amster, lighting designer Aaron Muhl and sound designer Kevin Kennedy all help give Leaming the assistance he needs to flesh out the message.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH's THIS WONDERFUL LIFE is a fine script for the holiday season, showcasing the real meaning of humanity and personal integrity. It gets a charming production that only Scrooge wouldn't like.