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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ a 1940s’ jingle-filled tale of hope and redemption

The lobby of the Hill Country Community Theatre in Cottonwood Shores is decorated and ready for the holiday production of 'It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.' Actors are (front row, from left) Kristi Senterfitt, Brandon Gonzalez, Nancy Keener, (middle, left) Sally Stemack, Sharon Dare, Pamela Marksbury, Donia Crouch (back, left), Richard Wolfe, Michael Frasier, Holli Jones, and Karin Frasier. Not pictured is Clarence Goins, who voices the actor who voices Clarence the Angel, Uncle Billy Bailey, and Peter Bailey. Staff photo by David Bean

By the end of the first table read for the Hill Country Community Theatre production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” actor Brandon Gonzales had tears in his eyes. 

“It’s a good story to hear this time of year,” said the Marble Falls resident, who snagged his first big role in only his second HCCT show. He plays radio actor Jake Laurents, who voices George Bailey and Young George. “It’s a very uplifting story about finding your self-worth and self-love and not taking things for granted.” 

“It’s an inspirational classic,” said co-star Kristi Senterfitt, also of Marble Falls. She plays radio actor Sally Applewhite, who voices Mary Bailey and Young Mary. “You can’t argue with it at Christmas. This tale will definitely bring tears to your eyes — happy tears.” 

The Joe Landry-written play, which opens Friday, Dec. 1, at the Cottonwood Shores theater, is a different take on the classic tale of hope and redemption than director Frank Capra’s beloved film of the same name starring Jimmy Stewart. In the stage version, actors portray radio personalities voicing characters in an on-air drama — complete with sound effects and commercial jingles — meant for the ears only. It takes audiences behind the scenes of a 1940s broadcast.

The film and play are both based on the story “The Greatest Gift,” which was self-published by author Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. The 1946 movie is set in imaginary Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve in 1945. 

Landry’s play premiered on stage in 1996 and has been making the theater rounds to critical acclaim ever since.

“The premise is that these radio performers are seeing the script for the first time,” said HCCT director Karin Frasier of Spicewood. “The challenge and charm of the show is seeing someone say a line as one person, then be another right after, and the audience can tell them apart.” 

For example, actor Holli Jonesof Marble Falls plays radio performer Lana Sherwood, who is the voice of flirty Violet Bick, bank employee Tilly Bailey (cousin to George), Bailey family housekeeper Sadie, and George and Mary’s oldest daughter, Janie. She also sings in the commercials during breaks in the “live broadcast.” 

The entire 90-minute production is done in one act, no intermission. Most of the actors are on stage for the majority of the play. When they are not on mic, they are milling about chatting, drinking coffee, and reading magazines, just as they would in a radio station studio.

The audience is challenged with what action to watch, especially when it’s time for the sound effects. Community theater veterans Sally Stemack of Burnet and Nancy Keener of Meadowlakes make up the Foley crew, named for Jack Donovan Foley, who first developed sound effects for live radio broadcasts in the 1920s. 

The Foley table sits stage right (that’s left for those of us in the audience) and includes “high-tech” instruments such as pennies dropped into a jar to indicate money changing hands, plates and knives banged together to mimic the sounds of a busy diner, and a tub of water and toilet plunger for the big splash when the angel Clarence jumps off the bridge. 

They also have a metronome for a ticking clock, shoes to replicate walking, Cornflakes to crush when ice breaks, and an old-fashioned dial phone to slam down when George hangs up on Mr. Potter and later when Mr. Potter hangs up on George. (Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!)

Sometimes, human voices produce the necessary sound.

“I’ve got a line that’s perfect for me,” Stemack said. “Cuckoo! I’m the cuckoo clock.” 

The biggest challenge for the Foley crew is timing. For the actors, it’s having to change characters quickly and constantly. For both, it’s how to make it all work together. 

“We have to weave all this action in between the lines for the characters to trick you,” Frasier said. “It’s a challenge to be able to create unique, identifiable characters for each of the voices they have to do. They do that with their posture, their face, and sometimes little costume pieces.”

When actor Donia Crouch of Horseshoe Bay is up front and center at the microphone as radio performer Barbara Jo Allen voicing George’s mother, Rose Bailey, she wears an apron because Rose is always cooking. Crouch also voices Mary’s mother, Mrs. Hatch; Harry’s wife, Ruth;a worried bank depositor named Ms. Thompson;andHelen, the teller in the family bank. 

As radio dramatist Goodman Ace, actor Michael Frasier (husband to the director) voices George’s brother, Harry, and wears a military hat when that character is speaking. Frasier’s radio actor also voices the angel Joseph;Mary and George’s son, Pete; another stressed bank depositor named Charlie; Martini’s bouncer, Binky; a cop; the husband of the Bailey children’s teacher, Mrs. Welch; local cab driver Ernie Bishop;and the angry man at Martini’s bar. Phew!

Even the director has four on-stage roles. She is radio actor Renee Orin, who is the voice of the Bailey’s youngest daughter, Zuzu (she of the famous angel wings scene); various crowd sounds; and a singer in the aforementioned commercials.

Successfully distinguishing between the many characters each actor plays takes a lot more than props, Karin Frasier said.  

“My job is to help them find each voice,” she said. “If Uncle Billy starts to bleed into Sam, I have to stop him and say, ‘Sam’s sounding too much like Uncle Billy.’ They have to find a way to keep that separate when they read the script.” 

The actors who play the radio performers portraying George and Mary Bailey each only have two characters to voice: George and Young George and Mary and Young Mary. As the main characters, they spend the most time on stage. As George, Gonzalez stays on the boards the entire 90 minutes.

Only the pianist has one role. HCCT actor Sharon Dare of Marble Falls plays chain-smoking Liza Redfield, who keeps the action moving with music throughout the production. The pianist provides moody background melodies, transition tunes between scenes, and commercial jingles. 

Although the story seems to never grow old, seeing it on stage as a live radio production from the 1940s brings a whole new perspective, according to the director. 

“If you’ve grown up watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ the movie and look forward to it every year, try seeing it done live,” Frasier said. “There is something about this story that resonates with people. It gives you hope. It grounds you with what’s really important.”

And what’ s really important now is to get your tickets before the show sells out. 

IF YOU GO

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” rated G, runs Dec. 1-17 at the Hill Country Community Theatre, 4003 FM 2147 West in Cottonwood Shores. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $27 for adults and $17 for students/children plus fees online or by calling 830-798-8944

suzanne@thepicayune.com