PROVO — I always expect a quaint, well-done performance when attending a production at the Covey Center for the Arts’s Black Box Theatre, and It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play did not disappoint. Under the direction of Adam Cannon, the classic Christmas tale was adapted by Joe Landry to come to life in an old-timey fashion.
Set at a 1940s radio station. the theater made me feel as though I had entered into a slightly antiquated radio studio. Light and set designer Pam Cluff didn’t leave a detail out, from the red-curtained backdrop to the short director’s chairs to the silver, vintage microphones. Cluff also decked the classy radio station with holiday wreaths and garlands that brought Christmastime into the theatre.
Before the production even began, the cast walked onto the set and mingled with each other, already in character. A great directorial choice by Cannon, this small detail only added to the feel that I, as an audience member, was truly in an old radio studio. Because not much movement was actually necessary of the actors and actresses, Cannon was able to focus on the small things that made all the difference.
One such small detail was the character Harry played Clarence the angel who always carried with him a copy of Tom Sawyer while any other character was left without a prop. Another detail was when Jake (who played George Bailey) was walking into his home, shouting for his children in different rooms; he moved from one microphone to the next as though entering unique places within his house. Every minuscule element did not go unnoticed, as they truly added to the reality of the story being told.
Each character was dressed in era-appropriate costumes from head to toe, thanks to costume designer Chelsea Mortensen. Sleek dresses and big ties and thick glasses matched the adorning jewels and stockings that came straight out of the 1940s. Even the hairstyles (uncredited) were befitting of the play, with the men’s being simple and slicked back while the women wore tight, frozen pin curls.
Sound designer Robert Seely added old-timey music between scenes as well as the occasional sounds of winter winds or chirping crickets, but Seely played an extra important role in conjunction with foley artist Elizabeth Wheeler. Together, Seely and Wheeler produced sound effects the “old-fashioned way,” with the tink of a glass signaling scene changes (though these came very slowly, one change I would suggest) or the ring of an old telephone with a bicycle bell that signaled the character to answer an imaginary call. Some of my favorite sound/foley effects accompanied an incoming train, from the slowing hiss of a steam engine to the blow of its whistle.
Parker Kelly played Freddie Filmore, host of the radio show, and voiced many characters during the storytelling portion. Kelly had impressive vocal talent, clearly distinguishing between the characters he was voicing. My favorite voice Kelly as Filmore created was that of Uncle Billy, especially when Uncle Billy was drunken and Kelly added hiccups for effect. My one note to Kelly would be that he seemed to lean too much on his paper script, while other performers seemed only to have theirs on occasion as a prop. I thought at first that this reliance on the script may have been due to the large number of lines Kelly was responsible for, but as the play went on, Kelly was left with less and less to say.
Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood was played by Ian Buckley, one absolutely phenomenal actor. As he voiced his characters, Buckley was able to distinguish between them through hilarious accents as well as his posture and gestures. I especially loved the crazy eye Buckley gave the audience as he read the lines for Bert the police officer—absolutely hysterical! No matter whose voice Buckley had on in any particular moment, Buckley was convincing in his role, especially as Clarence the second-class angel who yearned to help George Bailey and to earn his own set of wings.
Chelsea Tramell was also phenomenal as she played Lana Sherwood. Tramell stood out in her ability to switch between character voices, from the heavy New York-accented Violet to the voice of a small toddler Zuzu who was still working on her basic pronunciation skills. Tramell’s facial expressions matched every word she said, helping me know who she was playing at that moment.
Sally Applewhite was played by the marvelously talented Lorianne Poulsen. Poulsen mostly stuck to the character of Mary Hatch, who was often timid and shy. Not only did Poulsen’s voice showcase this personality trait, but the accompanying body language convinced me Poulsen was who she portrayed. Poulsen often looked down, played with her fingers, and nervously straightened her dress out. Well done, Poulsen!
Matthew de la Fuente, playing Jake Laurents, was perhaps my favorite performer of the evening, and I hope to see him in future productions here in Utah. In his role as voice for George Bailey, de la Fuente showcased his wide range of abilities to convincingly portray his emotions, and I could tell de la Fuente had trouble (for all the right reasons) staying attached to his radio microphone, because he was so completely in character that it became necessary for him to make eye contact with the other characters. De la Fuente’s hand gestures, facial expressions, and movements emphasized every emotion his character felt. De la Fuente was particularly powerful in portraying real emotion, where one moment he was shouting at the top of his lungs in anger, to the very next, saddened, quietly whispering to a beloved child. Amazing, de la Fuente.
It would be a mistake not to applaud dramaturg Hannah Gunson-McComb and assistant dramaturg Braxton Church, who worked together to make sure that every detail—from the words used to the costumes worn to the foley’s tools—belonged in the 1940s. I was absolutely impressed and captivated by the era I was transported into thanks to the work of the entire cast and crew.
This timeless story of the impact one individual can have on the lives of many is one you won’t want to miss this Christmas season. The unique avenue the script took in turning the entire production into a live radio play was definitely matched by the talent of each performer. Well done and happy holidays to the Covey Center for the Arts and their remarkable company.