Musical adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life has no wings

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It’s a Wonderful Life | Patrick Street Productions | Gateway Theatre | December 6 – 31, 2018

It’s difficult to remake a classic, especially a well-loved classic. There is the pressure to not stray too far from the original, yet the expectation to provide something new or to enhance the story or emotional impact in some way. Peter Jorgensen has adapted It’s a Wonderful Life as a big-band musical, and, while it’s a unique take on a tired classic, it doesn’t feel quite right.

The show tunes of the era are at odds with the wholesome small town of Bedford Falls, and the song and dance — while very well done with an on-stage orchestra — takes away from the emotional weight of the story, leaving it feeling a bit superficial. The one musical element that does enhance the story is Christmas carols such as Carol of the Bells and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

In between the many musical numbers, George Bailey (Nick Fontaine) tries his best to escape his small-town life, go to college, and travel the world, but something always stops him. He ends up taking over the family business (Bailey Building and Loan) and his childhood friend Mary (Erin Palm), who always had a crush on him, moves back to town. The two fall in love and are soon married with two sons.

Clarence the angel (Greg Armstrong Morris), one of the standout performances, watches Bailey’s life story with the audience as he learns more about the man he has been sent to Earth to save. His naiveté and desperation to gain his wings provide a bit of much-needed humour.

Another performance that stood out was Erin Palm as Mary Hatch. She played the sweet girl next door very well, but there wasn’t much chemistry between her and Fontaine. At times, the interactions among the main characters felt inauthentic, but not for long as we would be quickly swept up in an impressive song or dance. Although these scenes provided quick laughs and sharp choreography, they tended to distract from the story a bit too much, and left the climactic, emotionally-charged scenes with little resonance.

No matter the adaptation, the themes of It’s a Wonderful Life are as relevant as ever, especially at this time of year: prioritize people over profit, appreciate the little things in life, and be grateful for what you have.

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