Encore Michigan

Tipping Point offers inviting ‘Wonderful Life’ radio show

Review December 06, 2022 Bridgette Redman

NORTHVILLE, Mich.–Some stories never lose their emotional power no matter how many times they are told. This is especially true when it comes to holiday stories, stories that often resonate because they are experienced with family and friends and become a part of a holiday tradition that continually conjures warm memories and strengthens ties with loved ones.

One of these stories, a perennial holiday classic, is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ While the original Frank Capra movie came out in 1947 (which was itself based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s story, “The Greatest Gift”), it struck such a chord with people through generations that it has been repackaged and altered to be told in many different forms. That’s interesting because the film was not a commercial success when it was released after World War Two.

At Tipping Point this holiday season, an adaptation by Joe Landry, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, combines two media, that of live performances and of radio plays. It’s a popular version for theaters to perform, in no small part because it takes only five actors (and a stage manager who makes a brief appearance) and lets them show off their talents and make use of all sorts of special sound effect items.

It’s the first offering by the new producing artistic director team at Tipping Point (though the season was chosen by the former artistic director, James Kuhl). Jamie Warrow and Julia Glander have taken the helm of the Northville theater, and Glander directs this holiday classic.

Glander worked with the technical team to immediately create a 1940s vibe. Whether it was Monika Essen’s WXYZ Detroit Radio sound stage and period props or Suzanne Young’s spot-on costumes with scaled-up business dresses for the women and proper WWII-era suits for the men, everything worked together to pull the audience backward in time and invite them to be a live, studio audience for a Christmas Eve radio show.

She carefully coached the actors, giving them time even before the show started to wander out, greet each other and “check their props.” It was in these pre-show moments that the cast was able to establish their multiple characters, foreshadowing roles they would take on throughout the play’s intermission-free 90 minutes.

Rico Bruce Wade, who plays the announcer, Clarence and others, strides onto the stage that he rightly owns. He stares intently into the audience in between playing the host and formally greeting each of his fellow actors as they arrive and remove their wraps. He establishes a warmth, a feeling that everyone present belongs.

Kevin O’Callaghan enters with a big grin, moving and looking for all the world like a wholesome, 1940s, leading man of radio. Faith Berry moves with grace and delicacy, emanating the composure and dignity with a hint of playfulness that she’ll later exhibit as Mary Hatch. Annabelle Young sparkles as she arrives, mixing camaraderie with a dash of brashness. Last to enter, and already sharing some of the characteristics of the forgetful uncle that he’ll later play, Patrick Loos rushes in, a bit disheveled, but still showing signs of bonhomie as he rushes across the stage to prepare behind the scenes during the curtain speech.

Once the show starts, the actors get introduced as the radio station employees—Freddie Fillmore, Jake Laurents, Sally Applewhite, Lana Sherwood and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, but it is the characters in the story they are acting out that are the most memorable.

O’Callaghan gives us a George Bailey who is full of innocence and idealism. He embodies the best of small-town America even while longing to leave and see the world. It’s a story about how small things matter—that it isn’t just the celebrities and people who get written up in the history books who change the world, but the small, everyday actions of people who treat others well.

That is the Bailey that O’Callaghan creates, a man who had the smarts and desire to do big things, but circumstances held him to a life he disdained. O’Callaghan mixes the right measures of disappointment and enthusiasm, a salad of tossed emotions that take George Bailey to the bridge where he wants to end his life.

Wade brings a gravitas to Clarence while still portraying his oddball quirkiness that makes him a second-class angel after a century of trying to earn his wings. He displays sincerity and wonder as he plays spectator to the life of George Bailey.

Together, Wade and O’Callaghan exhibit a warm chemistry, playing off each other and boosting each other’s performance to make each of their character’s likeable and relatable.

Berry, Loos and Young do an excellent job of switching between characters, giving each of them their own quirk and personality so that it is always clear which of the many members of Bedford Falls they are portraying at any given moment. While they do so quickly, they maintain a pace that doesn’t interrupt the folksy nature of this story.

While there is no intermission, there are two “commercial breaks” that have the cast singing songs to familiar Christmas tunes about their show sponsors, each one drawing laughs as the actors play with the lines, teasing the audience with the antics that their fictitious radio audience would be unable to see.

It can be difficult to pull off the presentation of a story everyone knows. You’re asking the audience to forget past performances and accept new interpretations of favorite characters. Glander does an excellent job of having her actors keep iconic aspects of the characters while not being afraid to take them in slightly different directions, to open space for them to make their own choices with lines that the audience could probably quote. It’s this courage that gives the show its power at the end, a climax that invites tears from witnessing the goodness of people and the way they repay the generosity offered to them. It is this willingness to explore new directions while still staying true to the heart of a classic that makes Tipping Point’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” a holiday event to take the whole family to.

Together, the cast and creative team offer a glimpse into the magic of Christmas and the possibility of miracles occurring in even the most ordinary of lives.