Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

It's a Wonderful Life
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Alan Cumming: Legal Immigrant and A Christmas Carol


Isaac Greenland, Erica Parrish, Petra Danek,
Harmon Swartz, Jaeda Pasha, and De'Layla Wilcox

Photo by Lee Cooley
Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life may not have been successful when it was first released, but over the years this incredibly moving story of love and redemption has become a beloved favorite and a perfect holiday tradition. For the past several years, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre has been presenting a staged adaptation of Capra's screenplay during the holiday season, and the show, which won the ariZoni Award for Best Play last season and whose four lead actors are all reprising their performance from last year's production, amounts to an emotionally rich journey that soars once again.

For those unfamiliar with the film or the story, it tells the tale of George Bailey, an idealistic and self-sacrificing man, and Clarence, an angel who comes to George's rescue one Christmas Eve when George considers ending his life.

The film is beloved due to the heartfelt performance of Jimmy Stewart and the stellar direction of Frank Capra, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards. In order to make the well-known story succeed on stage, there must be an actor skilled enough to create a compassionate portrayal of the richly layered character of George without being too much of a carbon copy of Stewart's cherished performance, and also a director who can navigate the multiple locations, time periods, and dozens of characters of the show with ease. Fortunately, Harmon Swartz is superb as George, and Cheryl Schaar is more than well equipped enough to derive superb performances from her leads and many of the supporting cast and able to stage the production effectively on the small Don Bluth stage.

The entire cast deliver performances that form an homage to the film actors' portrayals of their characters while also adding some effective original touches of their own. Schwartz is simply excellent as the kindhearted, hard-working, self-sacrificing George who has always longed for a larger life outside of his small town of Bedford Falls, New York, but constantly finds the demands of his family and the continued need to help those around him are keeping from his dreams. Schwartz has the right balance of a positive outlook on life with the shades of darkness that appear when desperation overtakes George and he thinks all is lost. It is a deeply moving portrayal full of nuance, depth and believability and one of the best I've seen on a Phoenix stage this season.

As Mary, the woman George is in love with, Erica Parrish is simply lovely. She evokes the appropriate amount of warmth and sincerity in an engaging and effective performance. One of my favorite moments in the film is the phone call that Mary and George share which is the turning point when they realize how much they love each other, and Parrish and Schwartz, under Schaar's clear direction, make this a beautiful and poignant scene.

Tom Endicott is full of joy, honesty, and an uplifting and spirited sense of playfulness as Clarence, the angel who just wants to earn his wings. Jim Coates as Potter, the villain of the story who has a cold, calculating heart, creates a multi-dimensional character infused with realism. In smaller parts, John Mueller is great as George's bumbling Uncle Billy; Michelle Herro is fine in the somewhat thankless part of the angel who helps Clarence navigate his way through George's life; George Gonzalez is warm and bright as both George's brother Harry and his best friend Sam Wainwright; Tenea Hudson and Dan Marburger are quite good as several characters, including George's parents; and Rachel Weiss is appropriately flirty as Violet, the small-town girl who, like George, dreams to escape. Also, Isaac Greenland is very good as the young George and, later, George's son Pete.

While this production is slightly abridged from the film screenplay, it still manages to present all of the memorable scenes from the film, which is something not that easy to do on the small Don Bluth stage. Director Cheryl Schaar uses musically underscored scene changes, some effective sound effects, and a large, game cast to bring all of the notable moments and colorful characters from the film to vibrant life. Though there are limited set elements, the beautiful black and white backdrop of a snow-covered street in Bedford Falls that Bluth painted, and just a few small set pieces, with the combination of effective lighting by Judy Starr, Schaar and Parrish, quickly set the location of each scene. Corinne Hawkins' costumes are quite good. The small theatre space also provides an intimacy that is almost as effective as what you'd get from the emotion derived from close-ups in film and something that would be lost in a larger venue.

With a talented cast and sure-footed direction, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's production of this well-known film is both humorous and heartwarming. It shows that the story of George Bailey and the profound impact he had on all of those he touched during his wonderful life makes for a very effective and moving theatrical adaptation.

It's a Wonderful Life, through December 29, 2018, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, at 8670 E. Shea Boulevard, Suite 103, Scottsdale AZ. For more information on this production or to order tickets, go to www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com or call 480-314-0841.

Directed by Cheryl Schaar
Associate Director: Erica Parrish
Scenic Design: Cheryl Schaar
Lighting Designer: Judy Starr, Cheryl Schaar, Erica Parrish
Sound Designer: Erica Parrish, Don Bluth, Cheryl Schaar
Costumes: Corinne Hawkins Properties: Terri Parker

Cast:
George Bailey: Harmon Swartz
Mary Bailey: Erica Parrish
Mr. Potter: Jim Coates
Clarence: Tom Endicott
Josephine: Michelle Herro
Uncle Billy: John Mueller
Ma Bailey/Francis/Edna: Tenea Hudson
Pa Bailey/Mr. Martini/Ensemble: Dan Marburger
Harry Bailey/Sam Wainwright: George Gonzalez
Violet Biggs/Ruth Dakin/Jane: Rachel Weiss
Ernie Bishop: Malcolm Hopper
Burt/Joe: David Heap
Nick/Charlie: Garry Cox
Mrs. Hatch/Ms. Carter: Skye Ayers
Mr. Reinman/Mr. Welch: Dan Meiller
Mr. Gower/Randall: Hal Bliss
Dr. Campbell/Ida: Terri Parker
Tilly/Schultz: Grace Fraser
Annie/Maria Martini/Mrs. Thompson: Annie Rightnour
Young George/Pete: Isaac Greenland
Young Mary/Janie: De'Layla Wilcox
Young Harry/Tommy Bailey: Chris Devous
Young Violet/Zuzu Bailey: Petra Danek
Angel/Beth: Jaeda Pasha


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