A beloved film takes to the stage with the Asolo Rep's This Wonderful Life.
By Kay Kipling.
Who, you might wonder, would have the chutzpah to tackle presenting a live, one-man stage show of the holiday classic film It’s A Wonderful Life? Well, it would have to be someone with a lot of stamina, a lot of talent, and a tremendous amount of energy.
James Leaming in the Asolo Rep’s This Wonderful Life. Photo by Frank Atura.
It seems that James Leaming, currently starring in This Wonderful Life at the Historic Asolo Theater in an Asolo Rep production, has all three of the above. Not only does he spring onstage fully prepared to embody all the voices and characters of the original, he also acts as sound and lighting man and stage manager. (Well, he must have some help backstage, but it looks as if he’s doing it all.) He races through the highs and lows of George Bailey’s life in just 90 minutes or so, and he seems to be enjoying himself doing it.
But why, you might also ask. Why even try to breathe new life into a story we’ve been content to watch over and over at home on television? Well, as Leaming (and playwright Steve Murray) tell us at the outset, they just really love this story. And telling it this way allows us look a little differently at the characters and at the town of Bedford Falls as well. For in addition to repeating much of the familiar dialogue from the film, This Wonderful Life occasionally takes the time to comment on some of the things we’ve always accepted about the story.
Like, for example, how Annie the maid and Mr. Martini are such obvious ethnic stereotypes. Or how odd it is that a small town like Bedford Falls has an Olympic-size swimming pool under the high school gym floor. Or how, as George and Mary breathe together into a single telephone mouthpiece, we realize that for a Christmas story, “This is pretty sexy.” (Plus all that stuff about foreclosures and banks failing and an economic depression seems strangely timely just now.)
That’s not to say that Leaming and Murray are poking fun at It’s A Wonderful Life. Or if they are, they’re certainly doing it with their hearts in the right places. With just a few props (including a staircase that does double duty as the famous bridge from which George ponders jumping, some scene-change cards and a chair or two) and the simplest of effects (those stars in the sky representing angels, a downpour of money onto the stage as George’s neighbors come through for him), the actor and the play manage to bring to life everyone from Bert and Ernie to Clarence the angel without wings to the evil Mr. Potter to, of course, George himself (and, yes, Leaming does a pretty creditable Jimmy Stewart impersonation).
It all serves as a reminder of how much we’ve loved the film for years, and how much all of us, like George, have wanted to do something big and important with our lives—only to find that performing the ordinary tasks of work, home, family and friends may just be big and important enough. This Wonderful Life continues through Dec. 28; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.