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The Play-Goer: Twin Beach Players’s It’s A Wonderful Life

Freshened 20th century classic delivers message of hope 

        Long before Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas, legendary director Frank Capra gave us It’s A Wonderful Life. The holiday perennial most of us have seen a dozen times is now being performed by Twin Beach Players.

         As a fan of the original 1946 movie starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, I was eager to see this timeless story of self-sacrifice and friendship brought to life on stage. But I had one big question: Would the campy characters and serious plot set in the 1940s appeal to a younger audience? I would soon find out as I was attending the opening night production with my 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who was unfamiliar with the film.

         Don’t look for many surprises in this 2008 adaptation by playwright Doug Rand. The play opens like the movie with many off-stage voices praying for one man, the distraught George Bailey. On the brink of financial ruin and threatened with arrest on Christmas Eve, selfless George contemplates suicide while frightened family and friends ask for divine intervention.

         The plot and the lovable characters remain to true to the Capra classic: After viewing the pivotal scenes in George Bailey’s life, Angel Second-Class Clarence Odbody (Robert Sebo) is sent to earth to intervene. Clarence shows middle-aged George (Brian Davis) what would have become of his family, friends and hometown of Bedford Falls if he had never been born.

         Clarence ponders, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” By the end of the play, George and the teary-eyed audience agree.

         Despite the familiarity of the story, director Rachel Cruz takes risks. Her gender-bending casting replaces St. Joseph and St. Francis with gold-and-white-clad female angels Jo and Frankie (Sena Weaver and Tori Minakowski). Ernie the cab-driver whose gender is of no consequence to the plot, is played by an actress (Aaliyah Roach). Instead of Mr. Gower, we have Mrs. Gower the druggist (Terri McKinstry) whose life is impacted by quick-thinking 12-year-old George (Ilya Jonas).

         Cruz also has children playing in roles written for adults. Eight-year-old Brooklyn Bricker plays the elderly Miss Davis with innocence and spark. Fourth-grader Simons Acquah, Jr. shines as Charlie, a man who has “a family to feed.”

         Cruz mixes old with new. Props and costumes have a vintage 1940s look, but the music is contemporary. In the iconic graduation party scene, the graduates and their dates dance to Steampunk Charleston, a funky 2013 electro-swing jazz piece. Between the 31 scenes, stage crews rearrange props and scenery in darkness as the audience listens to folk, Broadway and soft-rock.

         These risks pay off. The production is fresh and holds the interests of a multi-generational audience.

         “I love the old-timey clothes,” Elizabeth proclaims. “Clarence is my favorite character. He’s clueless about modern things. People think he is dim-witted, but he’s smart about the important things.”

         Masterful as Sebo is as Clarence, he isn’t the only standout performance in this production with 72 roles played by 58 actors. Jeff Larson as the villainous, bitter Mr. Potter fills the audience with anger and pity. Cameron Walker and Ashley Vernier as George and Mary Bailey as young adults deliver powerful, believable performances.

         The supporting cast is filled with seasoned actors who play their roles with authenticity. James Atwell as the surly bartender Nick and Lindsay Haas as the sweet, maternal Ma Bailey are crowd favorites.

         Cruz, her cast and the 20+ volunteer technicians and production staff work magic to compensate for the poor acoustics of the gym they have transformed into a theater. The scenery is simple and sometimes awkward to move. Some of the younger and less experienced actors are still learning to project their voices. However, growing talent and making brilliant use of limited resources are what make community theater.

       Thru Dec. 16: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, Boys and Girls Club, North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: www.twinbeachplayers.org.