SALT LAKE CITY — The Off Broadway Theatre knows how to do the holidays. From the moment I walked into the meticulously and aesthetically decorated lobby, opulent despite its small size, I knew I was in a different and very calming universe, a place that feels like home and a winter wonderland all at once. The stage, too, despite simple drops and a minimal hard set, was beautiful. A white archway with dangling curtains of sparkling turquoise was the main focal draw at several points in the show, and I applaud Eric Jensen for his ability to make special things out of simple materials.
Though the play, It’s a Wonderous Life, was riddled with less-than-perfect acting and some flaws in technical support, for the most part, it was rather enjoyable. Starting the play out were Douglas MacKinnon (as Alpha Angel), and Kasey Sanderson (as Clarence Oddbody). Sanderson had a natural kind of energy that he used to fuel his character’s awkward brand of humor. In moments where the play might otherwise have dragged, Sanderson’s presence gave just the right dose of animation to pick things back up again. Because Sanderson acted as a sort of audience to the first half of the play, he was able to ask questions and make comments on the action of the story, which livened the evening up.
Another of the play highlight was Chase Dickerson as the dubious Henry Potter, the villain of the piece. Dickerson was undoubtedly a favorite, with his ability to improvise and play with the audience, find humor in mistakes, and to commit, body and voice, to a character. He is also a master at selling the Off Broadway’s particular brand of humor. The thing about corny, hackneyed jokes is that it’s all in the delivery, and Dickerson delivers. Dickerson has the makings of a truly talented performer. In a scene where he had to perform five or six cow-related puns in a row, Dickerson committed to the bit, and that made the very low humor sparkle.
Other performances of note were Clarence Strohn as George Bailey, Jamie Haderlie as Violet Bick, Jordan Johnson as Uncle Billy, and Austinn Jensen as Bert Swellman. Something I have always appreciated about the Off Broadway Theatre is its ability to showcase raw, natural talent. The productions tend to showcase performers who are strident and light on their feet. As a consequence, one can either notice glaring shortcomings in actors’ skills, but also what is special about every actor. Strohn, for example, is an extremely gifted comedian, and, in a role that is basically a two-hour long impression of Jimmy Stewart, he is able to deliver warmth and sensitivity along with dazzling physical comedy and sly, acerbic appreciation of his character. Strohn’s parody of Javert’s death scene from Les Misérables was a particularly great example of Strohn’s comedic talents and dedication to his performance. Strohn sold jumping off a bridge and plummeting to the icy river with such panache that my stomach was aching with laughter. In contrast, when he sang “My Grown Up Christmas Wish,” praying to return to his former life, I found myself engaged in the person that was George Bailey, sympathizing with his plight.
Things can go wrong in grassroots productions, and when they do, I appreciate a set of people who can take it in stride and turn such things into marvelous jokes. There were little mishaps throughout the play that elicited such shows in improvisational savvy, but my favorite was a scene involving Johnson when a light projector that was to serve as part of a rather long shadow-puppet bit refused to function. Johnson sprang to action, creating a new take on the original joke, which was very funny. I was doubly impressed when the child actors were not thrown by the turn of events, but still picked up on their cues, keeping the show moving along. I must commend the directors, Sandy Jensen and Zachary Reynolds, for casting people that demonstrated that kind of sheer nerve in the face of setbacks.
It’s a Wondrous Life is a funny, lighthearted take on the classic film, and one I would recommend as a family-friendly holiday outing.