It would probably be impossible to find anyone in the U.S. who isn’t familiar with the classic 1946 holiday film, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. Produced and directed by Frank Capra as his first post-WW II film, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was based on a short story which Philip Van Doren Stern self-published in 1943 after multiple rejections. Even though the picture was nominated for Oscars for Best Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Film Editor, and Best Sound Editor, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE won only one academy award for Best Technical Achievement: Russell Shearman developed a new form of artificial snow used even today in films – a major improvement over the corn flakes which had been used to that time. At the same time, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was a resounding flop at the box office, with mixed reviews and its failure to earn back its original cost. So how come everybody knows about the movie today? When the film was placed in the public domain in the 1970’s, it was possible to broadcast it without licensing or royalty fees – and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE became the beloved baby of television screens by 1980 – eventually making its annual home at NBC.
Ophelia’s Jump is thrilled to be presenting IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the “Holiday Show-of-Shows,” this 2021 Christmas season – especially after nearly two years of pandemic disease, depression, and lock-downs. Perhaps we all need to listen to the message in this homely little drama, a message of hope and love. Ophelia’s Jump has adapted this “Big Tent Podcast” from its original short story, its 1946 film, and finally its stage presentation (once even a musical). Thus IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has traveled from 1946 all the way to 2021 – still retaining the punch of the original.
The time is 1946, but the place is no longer Bedford Falls in upper New York State, Frank Capra’s Everytown (and it really exists, folks). In 2021, the setting is a town in California’s Inland Empire. George Bailey (Judd Johnson), the CEO of a small-town savings and loan, is in serious trouble. The bank examiners are on the way, and prison might be in his future. All because of some paperwork that sweet but heavy-drinking Uncle Billy (Ryan Alexander) lost – and with it proof of close to $70,000 in cash (a big sum in old 1946) to balance the books. George has decided he’s worth more dead than alive and plans to commit suicide, all the while wishing that he had never been born. But in his darkest moment, second-class wing-challenged angel Clarence Odbody (Caitlin Lopez) surfaces: Clarence’s mission impossible? To show George that life is worth living and fighting for – and that each of us makes a special contribution to everyone else’s life, even if we don’t know it. To make his point, Clarence gives George the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a world where he was never born. A world now controlled by Scrooge-like Henry Potter (Randy Lopez). A place where his hero brother died as a child, his loving wife Maria (Janette Valenzo) became an unhappy spinster librarian, his children were never born, the town pharmacist spent 20 years in prison, and Bailey Park (an affordable housing community) is a cemetery – all because George was never born.
While a tent in the brisk December evenings is not exactly Bedford Falls, it certainly is the Inland Empire. The blanket-wrapped, cookie crunching audience sat rapt as the radio play cum podcast unfolded, often laughing at the many gaffes on stage as the cast maneuvered around the microphones and chair shortage. But it wasn’t just the audience. The cast also seemed to be having the time of their lives as the narrative continued – and it was hard to say who enjoyed the play more, cast or audience. Even the amateurish manner in which the production progressed added to the seemingly spontaneous performances of the chuckling cast. Of particular note was the strong performance of Judd Johnson as George Bailey, the centerpiece of the yarn.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE proved to be a wonderful down-home Christmas production as it ushered in a story about the true meaning of the holidays. Even the amateurish manner in which the production progressed added to the spontaneous and almost accidental performances of the bumbling but good-natured cast. Director Beatrice Casagran no doubt had her hands full wrangling this bunch of cats. And thanks, Beatrice, for the music and jingles.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE runs through December 19, 2021, with performances at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The production plays under the big tent in the parking area behind St. Ambrose Church, 830 W. Bonita Avenue, Claremont, CA 91711. Tickets are $30 ($25 seniors and $20 children under 11). For information and reservations, call 909-734-6565 or go online.