Encore Michigan

Farmers Alley take on George Bailey’s savings and loan

Review November 27, 2019 Bridgette Redman

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–Pull up a chair at Farmer’s Alley cabaret show and treat yourself to a taste of the traditional with a trip back in time to It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Pay.

The story itself hearkens back to days of yore, to times when our movies were still black and white and old, white, rich men were the villains not the heroes of the tale.

While the Farmers Alley production hews close to the classic Frank Capra film from 1946, it changes the setting so that it does not try to compete with what works on the silver screen. Instead, Joe Landry’s script takes advantage of having a live audience and all that is theatrical to present an entertaining two hours for long-time fans of the film and those who have never seen it. Worth noting is that James Stewart and a lot of the cast of the film did a radio version of the movie in the late 1940s as the movie was not very successful in its initial run, and in those days when a movie was done, it was done, until revived in the TV age.

The radio play is set in Kalamazoo at the radio studios of WFAT (FAT likely standing for Farmers Alley Theatre) where vintage actors are gathering on Christmas Eve in the late 40s to put on the live radio play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It’s a convention that’s been used to retell several classic tales—and this month can also be seen at Williamston Theatre which is doing a radio play version of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a device that works because it takes the audience back in time to when sound effects weren’t digital but created with found instruments from metronomes to sheets of foil to shoes worn on hands. The audience gets to see the theater magic of how sound effects were created as well as watch the actors switch back and forth between roles.

It puts an emphasis on voice work, something that Director Sandra Bremer leads a cast skilled in that ability. Bremer makes good use of the small stage, arranging the blocking so that the audience is always focused in on the action. She keeps her actors tightly focused on the voice work and protects them from the temptation to break out their movement tools.

It’s an ensemble that plays nicely together and every so often treats the audience with Christmas songs or advertising jingles based on Christmas tunes.

Farmers Alley’s Artistic Director and frequent leading man, Jeremy Koch, takes on the role of George Bailey, a small town savings and loan manager who has selflessly given up all his dreams to help others and now is on the verge of suicide because of a series of catastrophes taking place on Christmas Eve.

He aptly captures the affable good nature of George, alternating between wide-eyed wonder and steely determination as he spends his life always doing the right thing. He doesn’t impersonate Jimmy Stewart’s iconic performance, instead creating a George Bailey that anyone will recognize but was also uniquely his own.

Julia Burrows is especially adept at the sort of voice work that builds a range from slightly coquettish, to sassy to faithfully good-natured. A lovely contrast is built between Burrows and the only other woman on stage, Lori Moore who takes on the roles of the older and rougher women, all those who are not the ingenue.

Ronald L. Centers is a delight to watch, particularly when he bickers with himself playing both the evil Mr. Potter and the absent-minded Uncle Billy. He injects distinct growls into his voice as he switches back and forth so that if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t know it was the same actor. He also sets the stage for the audience, describing the space in which they sit as a radio station and providing some background as to how a radio play works.

Clarence is given the job of preventing George’s suicide, an angel second class sent down as an answer to all the prayers for him that are being lifted heavenward at the start of the show. Portraying him is Tim Eschelbach whose choices create a Clarence who is lovable and naïve, eager and authentic.

Rounding out the cast are Brian Panse who picks up several different roles with verbal dexterity and Hal Hobson-Morse who layers his piano playing under all the scenes as an ongoing soundtrack (he also double as the music director for the handful of songs performed throughout the show).

Moore and Panse did the lion’s share of sound effects in addition to their characters, manning two tables on either side of the stage and keeping up with quick cues that imitated the classic style of radio shows.

Costumer Kathryn Wagner decked out the men in the formal suits of the 40s and the women in the modest dresses of the period with their clean lines and bold colors. It helped set the scene both for the radio show and the play-within-the-play which was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Steve Hodges did a particularly fun job with the women’s hair, giving contrasting styles of curls that hinted at the old habits of sleeping all night wearing curlers.

Savannah Draper had a busy dual role with props and scenic design. She filled the set with all the period props from dolls to sound-creating items that included a wind tunnel and a variety of other eclectic noise-makers.

It just remained for Tony Mitchell to figure out how to make all the different sounds called for in the radio play, a task that eschewed modern technology and digital editing. That he succeeded could be measured in the laughter that so many of the sound effects earned from the audience.

The winter holiday celebrations are a time for traditions—either old ones or ones made new. For Farmer’s Alley, their holiday tradition is to have the show in this time slot be a cabaret affair with audiences seated at tables and served dessert and beverages. It makes a warm setting and matches perfectly with the show selection.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a great way to kick off the holiday season and you have a month to capture the vintage charm and the feel-good message of this perennial favorite.

Week of 9/25/2023

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