It’s A Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play: No wings for fluttering Centerstage production

The cast of Centerstage’s It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (Richard Anderson)


For almost half a century, radio was more than a place for music and news. It was America’s collective means of escape from the worries of war and the Great Depression.

On any given evening, a family could gather around a Bakelite tabletop set, close their eyes, and, with the help of a cast of talented writers and actors, be carried away to the English classroom of Our Miss Brooks; cry with hopeless romantic Helen Trent; get the creeps with a trip to The Inner Sanctum, or open the door on Wistful Vista to Fibber McGee’s clattering, over-stuffed closet. So popular was radio’s hold on our grandparents’ imagination that movie theaters would often stop running films during certain hours and just pipe in hit shows such as Amos and Andy, or The Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

In the mid-1930’s, a marriage of sorts took place between radio and Hollywood, when The Lux Radio Theatre (which had been adapting stage plays) moved from New York to Los Angeles and began doing adaptations of feature films.

Frank Capra’s heartwarming classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, was one of the films Lux Radio Theatre adapted. Recalling that broadcast is the premise behind It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play – the current offering at Centerstage.

Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Carolyn Grimes from the 1947 film It's A Wonderful Life.
Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Carolyn Grimes from the 1947 film It’s A Wonderful Life.

Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, It’s a Wonderful Life revisits the fictional town of Bedford Falls, New York and its much loved but troubled stalwart, George Bailey.

Contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve, George Bailey needs a miracle, and Divine intervention materializes in the form of an angel named Clarence. From Heaven, Clarence views Bailey’s life in a series of flashbacks, and with each vignette, Clarence considers just how many lives the self-effacing Bailey has touched. After this chronicle, Clarence steps into the picture to stop the suicidal Bailey and show him the hell Bedford Falls would have been without his lifelong presence.

Do things work out for George? I don’t want to give away the ending, though Saturday Night Live once had a take which would make old man Potter shudder.

In staging this averred radio play, Centerstage made use of an adaptation by Joe Landry. This version sounds as if it’s a word-for-word replication of Frank Capra’s memorable film script. The company also borrowed the call letters of longtime media partner WBAL for its nostalgic trip down memory lane. The set (complete with an intriguing foley area and requisite Applause and On Air signs) is really beautiful. The sound and lighting are fine; the period costumes are all fitting, and the actors jump into their roles with gusto.

So what is missing from this production?

It is missing its very premise.

The main problem with It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is that somewhere along the way, everybody seemed to forget that this is supposed to be A LIVE RADIO PLAY. That means employing capable actors with great vocal skills to convey ALL of the action through a microphone. Not five journeyman players who dash about the stage like the cast of a Marx Brothers musical.

Part of the blame lies with casting director Stephanie Klapper, who should have cast this show with her ears, not her eyes. Yes, the actors look good, and they are competent if unspectacular. Clearly nobody here is going to make us forget about Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed or Ward Bond. Some blame also lies with Landry’s adaptation, which quickly moves from Bedford Falls to Our Town. But most of the blame lies squarely with director Eusebio for not trusting the audience’s imagination.

Joseph McGranahan, Ken Krugman, Pun Bandu and Eileen Rivera. (Richard Anderson)
Joseph McGranahan, Ken Krugman, Pun Bandu and Eileen Rivera. (Richard Anderson)

In a radio play, you don’t need to move chairs around to effect a busy bank counter. Nor do you change hats and coats to convey different characters. You do that with your voice.

Why decorate the set with vintage microphones, then have the players promptly abandon them?

Why give the players a supply of blank “scripts” which they rarely reference before turning them into so much confetti?

George Baily’s friend Sam Wainwright made a million dollars manufacturing plastic from soy beans. This George may have gone one better – had he only opened up a paper mill.

The worst part about all of this misdirection is that a slew of great lines fall flat.

Man on Porch: Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?

George Bailey: You want me to kiss her, huh?

Man on Porch: Ah, youth is wasted on the wrong people.


Of the actors, only Ken Krugman as announcer Freddie Filmore really flexes his vocal chords. Unfortunately, his take on Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore makes little sense in light of the fact that no one else on the stage is imitating any of the original film stars.

Joseph McGranaghan, as Jake Laurents/George Bailey relies far too much on movement to express emotion. And Chiara Motley as Sally Applewhite/ Mary Hatch is just a little too cutsie at all the wrong moments.

Pun Bandhu and Eileen Rivera ably fill out the assorted roles of the wingless angel Clarence, Sam Wainwright, Mr. Martini, Violet and little Zuzu, just to name a few.

A production of the Lux Radip Theatre from 1948 featured Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan.
A production of the Lux Radio Theatre from 1948 featured Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan.

Anthony Stultz – the only person at the station who maintains actual radio decorum – manfully brings Bedford Falls to life as the Foley Artist.

The original Lux Radio Theatre production of It’s a Wonderful Life aired on March 10, 1947 and starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and comedian Victor Moore as Clarence. I wasn’t around back then, but it would have been broadcast locally on Baltimore’s CBS affiliate WCAO, I betcha!

Centerstage is advertising It’s a Wonderful Life as “the perfect holiday outing for the entire family” and, for the less discerning ticket holder, that pitch may indeed be true. But for those who appreciate the golden days of radio, and the talented performers who populated the airwaves, this production could have been so much more.

If only the producers would have closed their eyes and listened, maybe someone would have heard a bell ring.

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Centerstage’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Stage Play, runs now – December 21. Running time is a little over two hours with one intermission. Centerstage is located at 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Tickets and other information may be found by visiting Centerstage online.