Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life Radio Play’ delivers a tuneful dose of Christmas nostalgia

Cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

By Amy A. Winnemore

Although it was unusually warm 70 degree November night, we were transported to a crisp Christmas Eve as we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” now onstage at the Walnut Street Theatre.

“Life” is one of my favorite movies, and it’s now a family tradition to catch it at least once every holiday season.  This production brought all my beloved memories of the movie to life as the five actors seamlessly performed multiple roles (as many as 25 characters), sang, played instruments and created imaginative sound-effects.

Set in a 1940s radio station, several posters featuring Dick Tracy, The Shadow, the comic book superhero Blue Beetle and the Abbott and Costello film “Who Done It?” hang on the wall.  Set Designer Scott Groh draws the audience into the holiday radio magic with a small Christmas tree, twinkling lights, classic dynamic microphones, sound level meters and even “On-Air” and “Applause” signs that turned on and off when needed.

Adapted from the iconic 1946 Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed classic, the play tells the story of Bedford Falls’ George Bailey who dreams of traveling the world but his plans are postponed when his family needs him at various times.  Despondent, Bailey questions his purpose in life and considers ending it all when an angel, Clarence, arrives to show Bailey what life would be like if he were not around.

 The talented cast includes Josh Totora (Freddie Filmore), Damon Bonetti (Jake Laurents), Jessica Johnson (Lana Sherwood), Michael P. Toner (Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood) and Tabitha J. Allen (Sally Applewhite).  Wearing period costumes, designed by Rebecca Dwight, Bonetti sported high-waisted blue suit trousers and red tie as he embodied Stewart’s memorable gangly, awe shucks style.  Allen and Johnson were fantastic as they performed multiple roles such as Mary, Zuzu, Violet and Janie.  Toner’s voices ranged from Young Harry, to Martini to an amazing Clarence.  As the emcee of the evening, Totora was great in his many roles including as the announcer, Peter and Nick.

Director Jesse Bernstein had the challenging task of coordinating 90-minutes of non-stop action and making it appear effortless.  When not singing or acting, the actors all took turns working the sound effect props such as opening and closing a metal lunchbox to mimic a car door shutting, submerging a toilet plunger in a bucket of water to sound like water splashing and a hitting a metal sheet to imitate thunder.  This was in addition to cast members playing the piano, the guitar and the xylophone.

  The play fills you with nostalgia for a simpler time when radio was the chief source of entertainment.

  If you go: “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” plays through Sunday, Dec. 17 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. For tickets, call the box office at 215-574-3550, or purchase them online.