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  • Writer's pictureLaurence J. Sasso, Jr.

At The Gamm - It's a Wonderful Life is a wonderful show

It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick will run through December 24. You will be missing something very special if you don’t get a ticket.

Alchemy is probably a word overused by reviewers, but it’s the right one to describe what happens when the Gamm’s well-chosen cast collaborates to bring this classic story to life in the form of a play being performed on the radio.

It all takes place on a set by Michael McGarty that recreates a nostalgia-inducing 1940s broadcasting studio. Damon Kiely directs.

The tone and flavor of the scene we are about to enter are foreshadowed by the banter of the players before the radio show begins. Santa arrives and warms the audience up a bit, and the musical director and accompanist, Emily Turtle, sets the mood with holiday riffs.

The book, which was adapted by Joe Landry, is almost identical to the screen play for the 1946 Frank Capra film of the same name.

Faithful to the era in its concept and presentation, yet fresh as today and evocative as mistletoe, this production is full of wonder and endearing moments. Yet it is underpinned by a serious message about hardship, hope, love, redemption, and faith in humanity.

Many who fill the seats will be familiar with the plot. For those who might not be, it centers on the life of George Bailey, a man from a small town who has big ideas. His family owns a building and loan company that helps the working class get a foothold in the economy and provides them with a means to become homeowners. The town’s much larger, conventional bank is controlled by Henry F. Potter, who is avaricious and downright mean. Tyrannical, profit-driven, and compassionless, Potter has no patience with sentiment or mercy. He milks the community while blocking the working families from gaining financial security.

At key junctures in his life George meets with reversals that prevent him from escaping the closed world that the town of Bedford Falls has become to him.

Adversity, human events, and his own sense of duty conspire to keep him confined to the roles that he repeatedly seeks to escape. Gradually, he finds himself stuck being a dutiful son, a loving but constrained husband and father, and the harried manager of the building and loan. He watches as one by one his dreams of college, travel, adventure, and a career as a builder of great enterprises evaporate and vanish.

The ultimate blow descends when the economy is ravaged and there is a run on the financial institutions. The building and loan is on the ropes, and George’s desperation comes to a head. He is challenged to find a reason to go on. Enter his guardian angel, named Clarence, whose task it is to show George Bailey what life for the people of the community would be like without him. The fulcrum of this charming play is how the winsome, whimsical spirit is able to enlighten his charge.

Tony Estrella excels as George. His ability to reveal the optimistic essence of Bailey’s character and make it endure throughout the challenges allows the charming fantasy created by Clarence to grow credibly from the gritty realities represented by Potter. Estrella has an uncanny ability to modulate his delivery and fine tune it to the requirements of the moment. He deftly provides the conceptual link that connects the harsh reality of the impending ruin facing his character to the pixyish parable woven by Clarence. His sure handedness sets up the transformation that shows his faith in others and serves as a catalyst for the rescue of the community by its everyday people.

The sagacious veteran actor Fred Sullivan, Jr. plays Henry Potter and Clarence. That alone testifies to the range of his talents. To convincingly portray both of the extremes inherent in the story, the unmitigated cruelty of Potter and the innocence and naivety of the angel Clarence, requires an uncommon degree of mastery, an elegant grasp of the value of nuance.

Sullivan, a major figure in the Rhode Island theatre scene for more than 35 years, is at the top of his game. His ability to shrug his shoulders, arch his back, raise or lower his voice, and change his inflection as he shifts effortlessly from one character to the other, establishes the tempo and momentum that keep us spellbound. His and Estrella’s skills are the essential elements of the alchemy.

Ably completing the magical effects are Lynsey Ford as Mary Hatch, who becomes George’s wife, and also plays Rose Bailey, George’s mother, Jeff Church, who takes the part of George’s brother Harry, and others, and Helena Tafuri who plays Violet Bick, the local vamp with a good heart. Her singing is also wonderful. Amazing, too, is Emily Turtle as the announcer and Zuzu, the youngest Bailey child. Turtle displays voice acting skills that are pure delight. Indispensable are the sound effect abilities of DJ Potter, the foley artist for the production.

It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play is enchanting. Make it part of your Christmas present to yourself and those on your list.

(Full disclosure: My daughter is on the staff of The Gamm Theater)

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