It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Drama (Review)

Falcon Theatre takes a step back in time

Stepping inside the Monmouth Theatre in Newport for Falcon Theatre’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Drama feels like a step back in time. The company has transformed the intimate performance space into the Falcon Broadcasting Company, a replica of a 1940s radio broadcasting studio. The effect is fun and nostalgic.

It’s a Wonderful Life is, of course, a story as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of pajamas. It’s heartwarming, it’s charming and people generally know what to expect. That’s part of what makes the radio drama interpretation such a pleasure to watch — it gives a new twist to a classic, putting the behind-the-scenes happenings at center stage. The audience gets to peek in on something they are typically not allowed to see.

The technical crew has done a fantastic job of creating the fictional world of WFAL/Newport, the station airing the show. The props and set work perfectly in the space, recalling a time when radio was the source of information and entertainment. Costumer Joy Galbraith has assembled a collection of pieces that recall the days when people really dressed for every occasion.

Director Ric Young has expertly crafted an ensemble performance from a capable and interesting cast. Timing and clarity are everything in a radio drama, and if one element is missed, it can create a domino effect. Several actors play multiple characters, sometimes switching up in the same scene; it’s impressive to hear four or five distinctly different voices come from the same person.

Stage Manager Judy Berrens also acts as WFAL’s program director, and she keeps the show moving. If you closed your eyes, you’d swear you were listening to a 1940s radio program. But don’t: Half the fun is in the visual details and the off-mic character interactions.

Part of the joy of this 90-minute production lies in its details. Aside from live commercials, each of two 10-minute intermissions features holiday songs performed by the Jingle Belles, WFAL’s singing trio. Despite a few questionable harmonic instances during the second intermission, they sing beautifully, and it’s really a nice touch.

In a production style where the concept of a fourth wall is virtually ignored, a certain intimacy between the actors and the audience is almost automatically forged. We get to see the disarray (staged though it might be), the perpetually late actor and the backstage tension so often hidden behind a curtain.

A word to the wise, however: With such immediate access, it’s in your best interest not to heckle the Jingle Belles. They can (and will) call you out on it.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO DRAMA, presented by Falcon Theatre, continues through Dec. 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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