When we first meet George Bailey in the painfully sentimental “It’s a Wonderful Life – The Musical” he’s a bit chagrined and a little bemused.
He has walked into the musical’s opening number, “You Are Now in Bedford Falls,” and a small cache of earnest townspeople are singing and dancing the praises of their quaint little burg. George, of course, is desperate to leave and see the world, but as fate and screenwriters would have it, he never does. George’s story, though a personal epic, never moves out of Bedford Falls, and as we come to learn, the town wouldn’t exist without him.
George’s initial smirk at the irony he feels only briefly breaks the flat wall of earnestness in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s new production of Frank Capra’s classic film re-imagined as a musical play. The 1946 film starred James Stewart and Donna Reed, and though not particularly successful back then, it has become one of the most acclaimed and watched movies of all time and a holiday season staple.
The film serves as the musical’s narrative template, and while the movie overflows with sentiment itself, it also has a dynamic balance of dark and light that allows an earned flow of emotion. The musical is another story, or rather, the same story devoid of the movie’s darker elements and inflated with mostly indistinguishable songs. Many of the movie’s dire and poignant scenes are reduced to mere mentions in this musical, diminishing their potency, and the production’s truncated drama and thin ensemble make the staged version much less compelling.
The musical adaptation almost makes a case for itself early in its too-long, 90-minute first act, when the story moves forward with the song “That’s George Bailey.” There we get a quick reading of George’s backstory, but after that, the prerecorded music supporting the live singers mainly slows the show by dully explicating what we’ve already seen.
Closely following the film’s plot, Jerry Lee’s selfless George continually abandons his own dreams and desires to further the interests of Bedford Falls. Lee’s vibrant, full voice animates the stage and his skillful performance tugs the sluggish production along as much as possible.
George helps people get home loans, and equally as important, he neutralizes the excellent Gary S. Martinez’ oppressive capitalist Henry Potter. Martinez has a couple of strong turns in the show as Potter’s music has the most personality, and Martinez doesn’t waste his opportunities on “Tell Me What You Want” and “Go Ahead and Run.”
The play’s first act fills in the highlights of George’s life story, the serial frustration of being unable to leave Bedford Falls and the awkwardly charming courtship of Mary Hatch. Jackie Vanderbeck’s lithe, resilient Mary, with her lucid soprano voice, complements Lee’s George, and two have a welcome chemistry that fortifies the production. Jim Lane plays a halting, childlike guardian angel Clarence.
The most dramatic scenes in the film show the dark, depressed Pottersville, no longer Bedford Falls without George. All the benign characters we met before are now upended, bitter versions of themselves with their lives gone wrong. In the musical version of this sequence, George simply stumbles through an alley of faceless drunks, and the humanity of their fall is hardly felt.
Director Michael Laun’s minimal production is weighed by the script’s thin mimicking of the film. Capra’s story takes a good man to the brink of despair and then restores his and our faith in the people around us. The musical pushes sentiment on sentiment, and even though the story sketches out most of the marks, the resonance isn’t nearly as deep.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: THE MUSICAL
* * 1/2