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'Wonderful Life' mostly works as musical with modern twists

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


HUDSON -- Making a classic movie into a musical is always touchy, tough stuff. Consider the musical Titanic, and the queasy, sinking feeling it produced in many people.

So it might be with some trepidation that audiences at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre approach A Wonderful Life!, Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo's musical adaptation of Frank Capra's 1946 film classic It's A Wonderful Life.

How could anyone -- even the writer of the stage marvel Fiddler on the Roof -- hope to match, much less improve upon, the original?

A Wonderful Life's writers went to this task by keeping the movie's venerable themes of self-sacrifice and duty and the story line of a man contemplating suicide saved by an angel. But they give the characters added dimension and updated dialogue (remember, Capra's film came out in an era when Rhett Butler's d-word drew gasps), and putting it all to music that often sounds more 1990s Stephen Sondheim than 1940s Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Does it work? Mostly, if you don't expect the musical to re-create the movie.

At some points, the musical works more effectively. One example is when the Bailey patriarch, Tom, played with touching sensitivity by Candler Budd, sings One of the Lucky Ones, explaining why his apparent drudgery at the building and loan gives him a sense of larger purpose. Another is when the ensemble shrieks its terror in the operatic-sounding Panic at the Building and Loan, closing the first act. Such songs heighten emotion better than any Hollywood close-up.

More specifically, does the Show Palace Dinner Theatre's production of it work?

Again, mostly, thanks to director Steven Flaa's generally thoughtful casting choices, Tom Hansen's clever, slip-sliding sets that keep the action flowing, and Bill Cusick's handling of the recorded music and sounds that only occasionally come to a jarring, abrupt halt at a critical point. Please, keep that choo-choo train choo-chooing throughout the scene.

Joe Lawrence is a strong and believable George Bailey, going with convincing skill from an eager, hopeful college-bound boy to a careworn family man and businessman who thinks he has failed. Peter Haig's Mr. Potter, George's banking rival, shows the rational but cruel business sense that motivates this charming yet dangerous character.

Flaa diverged from the old-guy stereotypes and cast the youngish Tom Bengsten as a wisecracking Clarence the angel and hunky Matt Triche as the Baileys' drunken Uncle Billy, two more bows to modern tastes.

The show's strengths make up for the couple of minor casting flubs, infrequent moments of stilted staging and one backdrop that looks a city too big to be li'l old Bedford Falls.

A Wonderful Life! isn't a frothy holiday musical; it's a tender, nuanced examination of the wonder of life.

Theater review

A Wonderful Life! the Musical, Show Palace Dinner Theatre, 16128 U.S. 19, Hudson, through Dec. 28: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; also 8 p.m. Dec. 13, 1 p.m. Dec. 25. Doors open two hours before each performance for buffet and cash bar. $35.95 for dinner and show, $24.95 show only; ages 12 and younger, $19.95 and $14.95. Call (727) 863-7949 in west Pasco; toll-free elsewhere (888) 655-7469.

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