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07 Dec 2013

Truly 'Wonderful': This Classic Radio Play Within a Play Will Leave You Thrilled and Moved

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Ron Young in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Ron Young in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.

The spirit of Christmas, so pathetically diluted by crass commercialism, is alive and well at IPAC.

Colleen Kelley has brought her Palm Desert Stage Company’s holiday show to a new home in Indio, and on opening night, the house was packed with lively supporters. We can only hope that It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry, will become an annual treat. It’s a family-friendly play within a play, so grab your nieces and nephews—even the grandparents, if they’re still around—and don’t miss it.

The Indio Performing Arts Center—a gorgeous gem that contains three boutique-style theaters (one with a screen, for movies) plus a huge central multipurpose area—is an excellent choice for Kelley’s show. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, no matter how big the heads or hats are in front of you, due to wonderfully raked rows looking down onto a beautiful proscenium stage; the chairs are the most comfortable in town. For this show, the set has been fluffed with poinsettias and a stalwart glowing Christmas tree (designed by John Meyers and Colleen Kelley). The open stage reveals the friendly clutter of a radio station’s broadcast studio, with the call letters “WBFR” aloft.

Stations’ call letters beginning with “W” designate radio stations located east of the Mississippi; all those west of the river start with a “K.” So we know this broadcast takes place in the east, and it is soon revealed that the location is “Bedford Falls.” (WBFR, get it?) Kelley is known for her attention to detail in sets, props and effects, and she must have loved creating a setting like this, with framed, autographed headshots of actors on the walls; microphones with perky Xmas decorations; and a mysterious jumble of sound-effect tools.

Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t seen the Jimmy Stewart movie? Whether or not you have, it won’t ruin this show for you, because there’s a totally different approach. Here, we watch the actors do the show, broadcast live, just like they used to Back In The Day. Nowadays, there’s hardly anyone around who actually attended a live radio drama broadcast, but today at IPAC, you get to be swept back in time and become the actual participating audience—APPLAUSE sign and all.

What a thrill; opening-night playgoers shimmered with anticipation, probably just like they did in the old days. Technical director Nick Cox sits high at the back of the theater, serene and confident in his booth. The actors enter and mingle briefly with the audience. Dan Graff, playing sound-effects guy Jimmie Jeffries, reports to his station and fiddles with his arcane doodads. Steve Lyon plays the fictitious actor Jake Laurents, who gives us the voice of our hero George Bailey—already in character with his square jaw squared and big smile. Jeanette O’Neill, playing actress Lana Sherwood (sure that was her real name) floats around being gracious and diva-charming. Peter Mins, playing Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, fusses and dithers enchantingly, his extraordinary eyes flashing. And Colleen Kelley, as actress Sally Applewhite, sweeps in to impress us with her friendly style and gorgeous blonde beauty. Ron Young, playing The Narrator, ever so handsome in a snazzy vintage suit and with an authentic hairstyle, steps up to the mic and counts us down in a radio-perfect, resonant voice.

You think you know what’s going to happen next? IPAC doesn’t provide seat belts; otherwise, I would suggest buckling up.

These few actors play multiple roles; Young leads the list with 11. But remember—This is radio! The listeners can’t see the stage like we can—it’s all done with voices. These astonishing actors morph in microseconds to play a little kid, an angel, an aged grump, a heavily-accented immigrant, a vamp, a tough cop, a crying baby—whatever is required by the script. And always with perfect diction!

You’ll be floored. This kind of acting, where mistakes and re-takes and edits are not a possibility, barely exists any more: It had to be right the first time. Plus, being in character … and being distinctive … with the proper emotion? It’s almost too much to expect from today’s talents—but they did it back in those early radio days, as Garrison Keillor explained, because nobody told them they couldn’t!

Co-directors Kelley and O’Neill show what can happen when actors also direct. The only choice I would question is that the actors here are frequently off-script—and I wonder if radio actors would have had sufficient rehearsal time, back then, to achieve this. It plays better, of course, but is it real?

The prodigious and astonishing skills of these actors lead to the success of this play. The adorable Dan Graff (wait until you see him in high heels) as the sound-effects man, with his ingenious creation of sounds, adds comic relief to Joe Landry’s unforgettably dramatic script. But bring a hanky! The play’s message is summarized in the title, and despite what we see as dated, and maybe even corny sometimes, the thought still rings true today.

Admit it: Even in 2013, it is a wonderful life.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a production of the Palm Desert Stage Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors and friends of IPAC; $15 students; and $11 children. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.

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