Most holiday stories cater to the young. Santa and his squad — Frosty, Rudolph, Mrs. Claus, miscellaneous elves and reindeer — exist expressly for children. The Nutcracker puts the childhood thrill of opening presents under the tree en pointe. Dickens’s famous Carol, for all its dark admonitions, leans in the direction of children’s cartoons. It’s not far from Scrooge to the Grinch.
That leaves the great 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life as an outlier among the holiday classics. The plot pits a decent but flawed adult human being, George Bailey, against the perfidious capitalist Mr. Potter. Their differing approaches to mortgage lending leads to conflict — not ordinarily a topic to inspire fairy tales. But lo! An angel comes, and that makes all the difference. With the arrival of Clarence, It’s a Wonderful Life becomes a Christmas story for adults that also appeals to children, rather than the more common case of the other way around.
This holiday season, Ensemble Theatre Company is betting that George Bailey’s angel-assisted redemption is a miracle that will resonate with everyone, particularly when it comes in the form of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.
Playwright Joe Landry’s stage adaptation of the movie has a powerful guardian angel of its own in the radio play concept, which lifts it into a whole new theatrical world. In Landry’s version, a cast of radio actors uses fixed standing microphones and an array of Foley sound effect techniques to produce the original script of It’s a Wonderful Life as a live radio broadcast. The addition of the framing narrative creates all kinds of new opportunities for the performers. Just five people must play dozens of characters, while at the same time constantly shifting between their “on air” and “backstage” realities. Thanks to the imaginative array of sound effects the cast produces live, there’s always something to watch on this radio program.
Director Brian McDonald sees this show as an opportunity for Ensemble Theatre Company to turn the New Vic into an immersive holiday experience that’s fun for everyone and appropriate for families. “The audience is part of it from the moment you walk in,” said McDonald. The journey begins in the lobby, where a head usher in a 1940s costume greets you. Inside the theater, you find the ambience is that of a vintage live radio broadcast. The actors sign autographs in character before the show, and audience members are encouraged to pose for holiday pictures in designated parts of the period set. The object, said McDonald, is “to create a gathering.”
The show itself he described as having “a bit of farce, like in the British pantos,” adding that “from there, we’re shooting for an authentic radio show.” The cast mixes newcomers to the New Vic with veterans of varying degrees. We last saw our George Bailey, Matthew Floyd Miller, in Ensemble’s recent production of Measure for Measure. His love match, Mary Hatch, is played by Hannah Tamminen, who will be making her Santa Barbara debut. Peter Van Norden, Louis Lotorto, and Teri Bibb round out the cast, all of them familiar faces to theatergoers in the region.
On Saturday, December 14, the theater will open at 11 a.m. for a Tiny Tots Holiday Concert and Santa Party. After 40 minutes of music and song from the players in Ensemble’s Youth Conservatory, families will have a chance to visit with Santa Claus while consuming cookies and hot chocolate. It’s another way that Ensemble is reaching out to embrace every aspect of the seasonal experience. There will be a 4 p.m. matinee of It’s a Wonderful Life that afternoon following the event.
4•1•1 | It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs December 5-22, at the Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). See ensembletheatre.com or call (805) 965-5400.