Theatre Review: “This Wonderful Life” at the IRT

Jerry Richardson in “This Wonderful Life” at the IRT

Last Friday night I fought my way through crazy, Monument Circle tree-lighting traffic (and Pacers traffic and some kind of high school football traffic) to the Upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre to meet my friend Chris for the opening night of “This Wonderful Life.”  I even paid $11 for valet parking.

It was SO worth it.

IRT newcomer Jerry Richardson stars in this…okay, yes, I’ll use the word: WONDERFUL one-man show about a man who loves the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The show opens with him acting out the story at the speed of light, leaving the audience breathless with laughter.  Then he starts over and acts it out again at a more leisurely pace…

…except that he’s not just acting out the movie.   He’s re-creating it, living it, and yet also commenting on it as he goes, affectionately pointing out the movie’s inconsistencies and foibles to the audience as only someone who sincerely loves a thing can do.  He reminds us of what the movie reminds us – that everyone’s life matters – while at the same time making the movie’s story and characters fresh and juicy.  This show is much, much more than a re-enactment.

I don’t think you have to have seen the movie to enjoy this show.  Some of the people in the audience Friday night seemed to be laughing the way people do when they’re hearing something for the first time, not laughing in recognition of something they knew was coming.

If you have seen the movie and loved it, I think you will share Richardson’s main character’s delight in re-visiting it.  He says, “Do you love this movie as much as I do?”  and you want to respond “Yes!” whether you do or not.  His enthusiasm is infectious and smart.

And if you don’t like the movie, well, I’m not a big fan of it, either, but I loved this show.  The movie version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” usually annoys me because I believe that if everyone works honestly to be their best, most authentic selves, things have a way of working out.  In other words, martyrdom is over-rated.  However, Richardson’s take (actually written by Steve Murray and conceived by Mark Setlock) on the movie made me see that maybe George Bailey was making the right, authentic choices for himself when he got married and stayed in Bedford Falls.  He was being true to himself in spite of himself.

In other words, rightness is connected to realness after all.  Or something like that.

I also love that whereas the movie seems to be giving a patronizing pat on the back to all the selfless “little people” in the world, this show is saying to famous people who might need a dose of humility, “No one succeeds in anything all by himself.”

Anyway, as Chris said afterwards, whether you like the movie or not, whether you have even seen the movie or not, you have to admire Richardson’s boundless energy and acting prowess.  He sounds just like Jimmy Stewart when he’s playing George Bailey (and pokes fun at himself for doing so) and just like Clarence the Angel Second Class when portraying him.  He is Violet the vamp, Mary the sweetheart, dotty Uncle Harry…all of the characters from the movie.  But more than just differentiating voices and mannerisms, Richardson melts back and forth between characters, sometimes in mere moments, with a seamlessness that is (okay, I’m going to use another no-no word for reviewers) AMAZING.

And funny!  I laughed from my belly more than once.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall as director David Bradley worked with Richardson and the designers to add even more layers to this piece.  Layers so subtle they work on the audience almost subliminally, like…well, like the contributions of people who stay home and run the family business instead of exploring the world and becoming famous.

Richardson is all over the beautiful (such a lovely, rich blue!) and deceptively simple set designed by Jack McGaw, for example, swinging a gate around a versatile lamp post and wielding a hard-working suitcase to establish various locations in the story.  Other carefully chosen bits of scenic help magically appear from time to time.

During the school dance contest scene, Richardson dances both Mary and George’s parts while behind “them” a circle of light representing the school’s pool widens…until they finally “fall in” with a hilarious splash.  This is only one example of the many subtle enhancements provided by lighting designer Michael Lincoln and composer/sound designer Todd Mack Reischman.  

Richardson’s costume, too, designed by Wendy Meaden, supports the phenomenal acting rather than overwhelming it.  His casual, sort of old-timey, three-piece suit invites hugs and allows him to dance and leap and roll in his enthusiasm for the movie.  It incorporates warm, golden tones that compliment his own strawberry blonde coloring, with touches of brightness in a blue tie and a burgundy scarf that he puts on at appropriate points in the show.

The stage managers for this show are Amy K. Denkmann and Delia Neylon.  Richard J. Roberts is the dramaturg.  By the way, I have not had a chance to pour over my press kit yet – which includes a copy of the Enrichment Guide edited by Richard J. Roberts and Milicent Wright – but I look forwarding to reading every word and I appreciate Laurie S. Blackburn and Kelly Young for preparing it for me.

At the end of the show, I leaped to my feet to applaud, as did everyone else who was physically able.  Chris said again and again, “Oh, I LOVED that!”

Me, too.  I wish I could see this show again!

Since it was opening night, Janet Allen (the IRT’s Artistic Director) had invited everyone during her curtain talk with Steven Stolen (the IRT’s Managing Director) to go up on stage after the show and look around, maybe take a tour backstage with the designers and hear what they had to say.   However, when the time came, no one seemed to be doing that, so Chris and I just watched the stage hand sweep up the snowflakes and dollar bills for a few moments.  We also looked closely at the floor of the stage, which was pretty interesting in and of itself: tiny pinpricks in the floor allowed light from below to shine up as stars.

Then we went into the lobby for some champagne.

There was plenty of champagne and egg nog plus an abundance of cleverly ornamented miniature brie-and-turkey sandwiches, bagel chips with pine nut hummus, and adorable shots of chocolate mousse.  Chris and I toasted to the success of the show itself, to next year, and to our friend, Stacey’s, health.

As delicious as the refreshments were, even more delicious was the surprise chance to meet and chat with Dance Kaleidoscope’s Artistic Director, David Hochoy.  I am looking forward to seeing DK’s “Magical Mystery Tour” show in January.

I also enjoyed chatting with Steven Stolen and with Richardson’s understudy, Ben Tebbes, and Tebbes’ lovely date, Adriana. 

(‘Speaking of Ben Tebbes…I am now a huge fan of Jerry Richardson and I do not want anything to happen to him – and I feel very privileged to see have seen him do this show – but I would love to see Tebbes do this show, too.  It would be different, of course, but I bet enjoyable in its own way.  Since Tebbes is doing all the work to be understudy anyway, maybe there could be a secret “Fans of Ben” presentation some Wednesday night?)

Friday night was a deeply satisfying evening.  My only regret is that I did not summon my courage to introduce myself to Jerry Richardson or David Bradley at the reception.  Thank goodness I have a blog, though, so that I can do the next best thing and gush about them here.  The IRT’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a TREAT.

It continues through January 4, 2009 on the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Upperstage.  To make a reservation, please call the Ticket Office at 317-635-5252.  The title sponsor for this show is the St. Vincent Heart Center of Indiana.  The opening night sponsors were Indianapolis Power and Light (IPL), WFYI radio station, Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, and the Candlewood Suites (which is where the IRT’s visiting artists stay.)  The sponsor for the IRT’s 2008-2009 season is OneAmerica.  I appreciate all of their help in making it possible for me to see this show.

Hope Baugh –

9 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “This Wonderful Life” at the IRT”

  1. You know the story behind the movie, don’t you? It started out as an original short story that a guy gave a select group of his friends instead of Christmas cards. One of the friends passed it along to a screenwriter friend of his, and the writer turned it into a screenplay. The director Frank Capra took an interest in it, and…well, the rest is history. There was even a book that came out in the ’90s about the movie, something like The It’s a Wonderful Life Book. It even had the original short story, which was quite a bit different than the movie.

    I used to really love this film, now a public-domain staple at holiday time, and I still have it on VHS…in its original pristine black and white rather than that godawful colorized misstep that Ted Turner attempted in the mid-’80s (and might still be playing on TBS for all I know). I especially watched it during the late ’80s and early ’90s, even during non-holiday times of the year when I was a young husband and father. I identified with George Bailey, the average Joe who sacrifices his own dreams to do the right things for his family and friends. I, too, wanted to do right by my family, and I think I did (you’d have to ask my son about that, though). But now that I’m older and living alone, I don’t identify with George so much. I’m probably more like Uncle Billy than anyone else in the movie now. At least I hope I’m not Potter, although I can do a pretty fair imitation of Lionel Barrymore. (“You called me a wawwww-ped, frustrated old MAAAAAAN!”)

    Sounds like the IRT one-man show last Fri was fun; I’m sorry I missed it. Eleven bucks for valet parking, though??? Ouch! Why didn’t you try parking across the street @ Circle Center Mall? Do they close the parking garage at a certain time?

  2. Thanks very much for the interesting comment, Jack! I didn’t know that about how the movie came to be.

    Re: the parking…well, by the time I got anywhere near the IRT, I was running so late that I decided the valet parking would be worth it. Reviers can NOT miss the opening minutes of a show! (Plus I hate to miss the curtain talk anyway, just for myself, and I knew my friend was waiting and probably wondering where I was.)

    Usually, though, I can find a place on the street. Nights and weekends you don’t have to put money in the meters.

  3. You’re welcome, Debby! I loved the “radio” version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that the Spotlight Players did last year. I’ll be curious what you think of this one-person version.

  4. Am I a bad person because i’ve not seen this movie *L* I think im the only one alive who hasn’t. Nice review though….it made me want to see this. Sounds like a cool concept!

  5. I would love to see this, especially after reading this wonderful review. I love the movie- I always find Christmas time to be oddly sad; maybe melancholy is the word. So I’ve always found It’s a Wonderful Life to be the perfect movie for me at the holidays- a little sad, but hopeful, and warm.

  6. Jerry Richardson is my nephew and a wonderful actor and person I would love to see this show but unfortunately I live a another state. Thanks for the great review of it. I almost felt like I did get to see it.
    Aunt Pam

  7. Pam, I, too, wish you could be here to see your nephew in this show. I’ll say it again: he’s wonderful!

    (And thanks, Pam, Erin, and Dane for reading and commenting. I just got back from two days without Internet access and had to slog through 1,103 autobot spam messages in Chinese, Russian, German, and English about online casinos, porn, discount watches, viagra, and getting rid of termites in furniture.

    I can’t tell you much it means to me to be going through my “comment moderation queue” and come upon a comment from a real, live person!)

  8. I took my wife to this yesterday as a Christmas gift to us. I am soooo very glad I did. This was amazing and Mr. Richardson did an amazing job. I think I actually like the movie more after the play. I have always been annoyed by it a bit, but now I think I can appreciate it in a different way. It was my first time at IRT (we live in Evansville). But, I think I might plan future trips to Indy around IRT’s schedule to check out even more.

    Thank you for this blog, it was great!

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