For fans of Frank Capra’s Hollywood classic, ”It’s A Wonderful Life,” and for those who have not yet had the good fortune to see that film, you may want to mark your calendars and pay a holiday season visit to the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts for Town Center Theatre’s current production of “Merry Christmas, George Bailey.” Based on the original screenplay of Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, this edition is both adapted for the stage and nicely co-directed by Chris Tennison & Joseph Milillo. It is a cheerful recreation of the well-known plot of the optimistic motion picture treasure which, surprisingly, was not a success in its first release to 1947 audiences who may have found it a bit too melancholy for the upbeat post-war era. But time would win over audiences around the world. This Town Center edition is remarkably well-cast with a real-life married couple, Santry and Ivy Rush, playing sweethearts, George Bailey and Mary Hatch. Both actors succeed beautifully in following the flavor of the memorable film performances of James Stewart and Donna Reed. There is no mimicry here, but there is genuine and evident affection, and, in the case of the tall, lanky, and good looking Mr. Rush, one can’t avoid being reminded of Mr. Stewart’s Midwestern twang and easy charm. The lovely Ms. Rush is a perfect match as his darling Mary.
The production is essentially a reading staged very simply as an old-fashioned radio broadcast, in this case coming from “The Woodlands Radio Playhouse.” The pleasant ’40’s costumes (designer Arlina Giles Milillo) added to the period flavor, but don’t come expecting glamorous production values. But you will find values of the kind we should all be more aware during this most meaningful of seasons. The full cast was seated across a largely empty stage with a set design (also by Milillo & Tennison) that included a radio station sound effects desk (Sound Artist, Kurt Grabenstein), a pair of chairs, a stool, and an attractive Christmas tree. It is worth mentioning that the Nancy Bock is a very large venue for an intimate show of this kind, and I wondered if the production might not have been enhanced by performance in the more intimate small theater in the same building.
For those not acquainted with the plot, it is amazingly timely as it deals with a small town savings & loan company that is in financial trouble as a result of perhaps too generous an approach to helping the townsfolk attain mortgages for homeownership. Sound like contemporary headlines? You bet! The talented cast of fifteen includes many who play multiple roles as they bring to life most of the characters we recall from the film. John Stevens is deliciously evil as the crusty and conspiring businessman, Mr. Potter. Theatrical fireworks follow when gruff Mr. Potter clashes with George in an attempt to capture control of Bailey’s bank and totally take over the town of Bedford Falls. Meanwhile, Travis Bryant does fine work as the radio station announcer and shows great versatility in several roles, including a sometimes drunken Uncle Billy who is full of desperation when he misplaces a large deposit of the bank‘s funds. Ben Warner creates several distinct and well-crafted characterizations, including the role of George’s brother, Harry. Well-known Houston actor (Masquerade Theatre), Ilich Guardiola, plays Pa Bailey with rich warmth, while Valerie Millwee capably covers the role of Ma Bailey.
Portraying the Bailey children, the cast has five eager juvenile thespians, several in double roles. These include the lovely young ladies, Kara O’Neal, Devon Sieving, and pint-sized powerhouse, Lena Torluemke. Justin Failde brought special charm to the part of young George Bailey, and was paired nicely with Jake Teall who plays the young brother, Harry. Excellent actors all, the youngsters sometimes need to project their voices more loudly, but they deserve special credit for focused concentration while being required to sit quietly on the stage during long passages of the script that did not involve them. Other fine members of the cast include Tatum Clinton-Selin, and Andrew Ruthven.
During the intermission I spoke with audience member, Doris Hageman, a Woodlands resident who was enjoying her first visit to the Nancy Bock theatre. She commented on the old-style radio show flavor of the production and mentioned the authentic musical interludes between scenes sounding just like the ones she remembered “…from those old-time radio soap operas.” Then it was time for the powerful final scene when George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, (Ron Putterman) comes to earth to help George in a crisis and, hopefully, win his angel’s wings in the process. As the bank teeters on failure, Clarence gives desperate George a chance to see how the world would have been if he had never lived. That revelation is the source of the show’s power as we in the audience are forced to ponder our own significance in the universe. In Putterman’s affectionate performance we have a kindly Clarence that reminds us that “Each man’s life touches so many others.” That caution would certainly include this talented cast of Town Center actors.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey continues at Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts in The Woodlands, Texas, with 8pm performances on December 6th, 19th, and 20th. There will be Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm December 7th and 21st. For tickets and information call 832-592-9697 or visit the website at http://www.towncentertheatre.com.