Encore Michigan

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ at The Riverbank

Review November 23, 2019 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, Mich.–It’s a great irony that, though some of life’s greatest lessons come as a result of our most intense trials, we often can’t see past the trials to recognize the wisdom they bring. How wonderful it is that we can use storytelling to illuminate the lessons they mirror in our own lives!

In another irony, It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered by many to be one if the best films ever made, even though it was originally a box office disappointment in 1946. It languished in obscurity for a few decades before being revived as late night TV during the Christmas season, finally gaining  momentum and becoming a classic.  Fortunately, it has also been adapted for the stage, and the story loses none of its impact as a holiday staple in that forum.

The Riverbank Theatre in Marine City is currently running It’s a Wonderful Life under the direction of Brittany Everitt Smith, who has assembled something of an “all-star” cast of Riverbank regulars and alums for the show, filling the stage with award winning, experienced actors, local favorites and talented newcomers. 

For the many who love It’s a Wonderful Life and have seen it many times, and also for those who have never seen it and would be spoiled by too much information, I’ll leave the plot details vague here. George Bailey (Aaron Dennis Smith) always harbored dreams of traveling the world, studying engineering and building great things.  Instead, he is compelled by circumstances to remain in his small home town and take over running his father’s small business, despite the attempts of wealthy, cold hearted Mr. Potter (Edmond Reynolds), who owns pretty much everything else in town, to put him out of business. George marries a home town girl, the incomparable Mary (Amanda Rae Evans), and they raise four children in a forlorn and humble but cozy home.

Turn after turn, George puts his own dreams aside for the sake of others, and watches others achieve success and notoriety while he struggles to keep his family business from going bankrupt. When on the brink of financial ruin, George ruminates that he has only brought turmoil to his family and his town, and wishes he’d never been born.  When his guardian angel Clarence (Michael McCartan) arrives and shows George what life would be like without him, George finally understands that what he sees as his trivial existence has truly monumental ripple effects on his family and his community.

As mentioned above, this production is extremely well cast, with seasoned actors who know when a role requires subtlety and when it requires exaggeration.  One example is Evans, who portrays Mary as the glue that holds her family together, the anchor that grounds George when he becomes frantic; but also a romantic who gets what she wants with genuine charm.  On the other end of the delicately balanced spectrum are Tony Amato as Uncle Billy and Terri Turpin-Amato as Tilly.  The perpetually flustered Tilly and absent minded Uncle Billy have likely contributed to the company’s near disasters as much as they have its successes. But they are just incompetent and goofy enough to be lovable.  Terri Turpin-Amato also acts as Mary’s mother (mostly off-stage) in one hilarious scene where she attempts to play matchmaker with Mary and her absent beau, while George and Mary are simultaneously trying to navigate their own intense and obvious chemistry.

Addressing this chemistry: Smith and Evans sell it easily.  Evans as Mary uses her charm honestly to attract George; and Smith does a wonderful job at downplaying George’s strong attraction to Mary, and when holding it back becomes too much, finally letting the dam break with his declaration of love. Another credit to Smith is the way he plays a George who is both caring and mildly cynical. When George’s business is facing disaster Smith shows us a George who feels his life is out of his own control, on the cusp of a breakdown and barely maintaining control of his emotions.

Reynolds nails the character of the condescending and despicable Mr. Potter, with a gravelly voice and derisive manner to his foes and allies alike.   McCartan plays a humble yet very perceptive angel Clarence, who punctuates the scenes of George’s life with the humor of an outsider, and several almost-but-not-quite whiny references to getting his angel wings. And in two short but powerful scenes, Randy Skotarczyk skillfully portrays a Mr. Gower who is devastated by grief, then haunted by guilt and plagued with alcoholism.

The rest of the cast, including several young cast members, are also a credit to the show.

Because this production features scenes in many different locations around the town, the scene changes are somewhat encumbered by many large set pieces, making scene transitions slightly more conspicuous than is ideal, even when cleverly engineered.  This is sometimes mitigated by moments with Clarence that take place while the scene change is going on behind him.

Overall, It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a story with a beautiful message; it has flawed and lovable characters that offer meaningful contributions to the narrative, played by a talented cast.  Take your whole family to the show and enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life together, you will not be disappointed!

It’s a Wonderful Life is playing at The Riverbank Theatre through December 22, 2019.

Week of 12/9/2019

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