Watching the 1946 Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a holiday tradition for many, and starting Santa Barbara residents can now see the famous story told live onstage in Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production. “It’s Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” faithfully recreates the tale of director Frank Capra’s cinematic classic, with its five person cast performing as actors doing the story as a radio drama in 1947. Previews for the show began last night at Ensemble Theatre Company at The New Vic and will continue tonight at 8 p.m. before opening wide tomorrow at the same time. The play will continue with performances until December 22.
Adapted by Joe Landry from the original screenplay by Mr. Capra and co-writers Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling, the show helmed by first-time director Brian McDonald will feature live Foley sound effects created by the actors and mock commercials for local businesses like The Upham Hotel, done in 1940s fashion.
In an interview with the News-Press, Mr. McDonald said the latter was meant to connect this production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the Santa Barbara community. The director described the show’s conceit as if a few Hollywood actors from the ‘40s traveled from Los Angeles to a Santa Barbara theatre to do the movie’s story as a live broadcast. This connection to the local community he added is appropriate considering how significant a theme community is in the show’s narrative and to its protagonist, George Bailey.
Originally played by screen legend Jimmy Stewart, this show’s George Bailey will be performed by actor Matthew Floyd Miller. While faithful to its source material, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” will not feature Mr. Miller doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression, as the actor suspects doing so will leave audience members assessing how good or bad his impression is rather than sweeping them up into the emotional story. Instead, Mr. Miller has approached the role like he would any other, going through the show’s script and relating his own experiences to the events therein. The actor added that Mr. McDonald has been welcoming of him and his fellow cast members coming up with their own takes on the characters.
“Brian has really encouraged us to make it our own,” he said.
A small-town man with ambitions to move out of his hometown, see the world, and accomplish big things, George Bailey begins “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a young boy and grows up having those dreams unfulfilled when responsibilities to his community keep him tied down. He eventually becomes despondent to the point of wishing he was never born until an angel named Clarence shows him how much good he has done throughout his life, and how different his community and those that live in it would be without him. For viewers who feel hopeless and think that their lives are of little value, Mr. Miller hopes the show will resonate with them.
“I want people to walk away and feel hope, and feel that they’re not alone,” he said.
When asked what he hopes the local audience will take away from directorial debut, Mr. McDonald told the News-Press that he wants “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” to have the audience leave taking to heart the show’s message: That community is important and “not about winning over someone else.” Rather, it’s about “How do we win together?”
Additionally, he hopes the show will be a reminder that “Even in our darkest moments we have to pick ourselves up and do our very best each and every day because we not only have a responsibility to ourselves, but to others.”
Tickets for “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” can be purchased online at www.etcsb.org. Ensemble Theatre Company is located at 33 W Victoria St.