BLUFFDALE — In 2023, the days of the family gathering around a single source for entertainment sometimes feel quaint. As I sat in the front row of the Bluffdale Arts Advisory Board’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life by Joe Landry, I was cast into a bygone era of radio plays performed in front of a live audience. The platform stage in a conference room of the Bluffdale City Hall was set up to appear like a 194’s recording studio. Downstage there were four mock moving coil microphones set up in front, and upstage were chairs for actors to sit in as they waited to contribute their part of the story. Stage left featured a foley artist’s table for practical sound effects used throughout the play, and next to it was a broken down piano that, incredibly, still played despite its apparent disrepair. Coming in from a cold night into a warm lobby with a hot chocolate bar and that delightful setup was an inviting space to enjoy a holiday favorite.
It’s a Wonderful Life is adapted from the movie of the same name, following nearly all the same plot points as the film. The production directed by Julie Fox operated much like a well rehearsed staged reading. The actors held scripts in hands, stood up at the microphones at their turns, and sat in the back when not called upon. The actors at rest had stage business that was entertaining and authentic, but not distracting. At times one actor would get up and get a drink while quietly offering to pour a cup of water for a fellow cast member. The foley artist would, at times, hold up a sign indicating for the audience to applaud, and managed to engage with several important moments to comedic effect. During the scene where George and Mary are throwing rocks at the window of the abandoned house, the foley artist runs across the creaking platform stage, and makes the seemingly rash choice to break the window that the actors go in and out of between acts to the backstage area. The window appeared to be sugared glass, but the startling effect was fun and was one of many nice directing choices from Fox to make the foley artist more lively and engaging.
The part of George was played by Colin Baker, whom I had previously seen in Bluffdale’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Baker presented a George Bailey who was polished and had clear objectives. I appreciated that while he kept the major emotional beats of the character; Baker was not a Jimmy Stewart impersonator. Instead, he brought his own energized choices to the character. I felt that his relationship with the angel Clarence was especially clear in this regard. While Stewart presents a more hardened outer shell the first interactions he has with the angel, Baker brought vulnerability to the character right away. He often seemed awed at the revelations that he did not have a bleeding lip or was not recognized. The buildup to George’s desperate wish for his lost love, Mary, to know him again was impressive. It made Baker’s portrayal seem like George had tried to contemplate a world he did not exist in, but was astounded by the results.
It was a sweet ensemble performance with each other actor playing multiple parts, and at times even interacting with themselves in two different voices. I enjoyed being able to sit back and close my eyes as I noticed the subtle changes of voice and demeanor that carried the actors through the performance. The play’s second act is less than half the length of its first, due to the nature of the radio play doing more telling than showing. This made the ending sequences feel a little hurried, but it balanced out a more methodical first act nicely. Seeing Bluffdale’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life was an important reminder of what a difference one good man can make in a world that so often takes for granted the contributions of kind and generous people. It was a cozy winter show that brought hope in a time of year when such reminders are so precious.