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 – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com