WASHINGTON -- A few minutes into "A Wonderful Life," a host of roller-skating angels glides across the shiny celestial blue stage. Instantly, you realize this Arena Stage musical has found the thing an adaptation must find to succeed -- a way to improve on the original.
The original, of course, is Frank Capra's beloved 1946 Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." Admittedly, the improvement is a small one: Librettist Sheldon Harnick and director Douglas C. Wager have added, or at least enhanced, the element of comedy. It's a lovely touch, and it pops up at just the right moments, cutting the sap level before it reaches cavity-producing proportions.
But it's also no small achievement that this show tweaks the same heartstrings as one of the most marvelously manipulative movies ever made -- the story of suicidal George Bailey, whose life is turned around when he gets to see what the world would have been like if he'd never been born.
If the score were as accomplished as the book and staging, "A Wonderful Life" might be a wonderful musical. However, not only are most of the late Joe Raposo's melodies lackluster, but Mr. Harnick's lyrics rarely further the plot or character development. And only the Charleston number, "In a State," makes an effort to capture the flavor of the show's 1920s-1940s setting.
Ironically, the best example of what the score could have been is a song called "Precious Little." A sweet lullaby sung by George to his youngest daughter, it ominously evolves into an angry rationalization for suicide.
Casey Biggs captures George's inner torment; he's so eager to help others, he loses sight of his own happiness. But while George may be an Everyman figure, his voice needs to soar, and Mr. Biggs' does not. As his understanding wife, Brigid Brady has an exquisite voice and an appropriately devoted attitude, and Richard Bauer delivers yet another excellent character turn as the richest, meanest man in town.
George's guardian angel is played by rotund Jeffrey V. Thompson with child-like exuberance; it's too bad this ample angel doesn't have a song that lets him shake up the heavens.
Capra purists will note a few alterations in the script. The chief one is that instead of trying to end his life by drowning, George chooses to throw himself in front of a train. However, it's an equally effective means of making the point, and in a way, it typifies what "A Wonderful Life" does best -- it captures the spirit of the movie, and that's almost heaven.
"A Wonderful Life" continues at Arena Stage in Washington through Jan. 5; call (202) 554-9066.
Coincidentally, Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia will revive its 1989 production of "A Wonderful Life" -- scripted by David Nehls with a score by Michael Tilford -- from Dec. 11-29 and Jan. 7-19; for information call (410) 995-1969.