Toby's produces a wonderful 'Life'

Theater

December 18, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

It's a wonderful competition. Both Washington's Arena Stage and Toby's Dinner Theater in Columbia are doing their own musical versions of the holiday classic, ''It's a Wonderful Life.''

Both productions are based on the 1947 Frank Capra film which is shown about three million times on television during the Christmas holidays.

Toby's first did its ''Life'' two years ago. The revival opened last week. Arena Stage opened its version earlier this month.

The winner? It's difficult to say. There is nothing wrong with the Arena version that couldn't be fixed with a pair of scissors. At present, it runs almost three hours. The dinner theater version is 30 minutes shorter.

That is the prime advantage the Toby's production has over the Arena production, that and the score. The score at Toby's is far more melodic than the Arena score, one that was done by Sheldon Harnick, who may be best known for the score on which he collaborated for ''Fiddler on the Roof.''

Harnick and Joe Raposa, who did the music for the Arena version, were apparently influenced by Stephen Sondheim when they did their score, something we can't hold that against them because just about every contemporary composer has copied Sondheim.

There was a time when composers of Broadway musicals were all copying Rogers and Hammerstein. Now, it's Sondheim, and really, one Sondheim is enough.

Not that the Arena score is bad. It isn't. There is, however, too much of it. The show, as is, is scene and song heavy. The dinner theater version is not.

At Toby's, they've eliminated some characters and some scenes that were in the movie. They've also dressed it with some clever production touches that are as admirable as they were when we first saw this production.

Stephen Schmidt, who was George Bailey in the original Toby's production, reappears as Bailey in the revival. Appearing opposite him is Carol Graham Lehan who, like Schmidt, is repeating her earlier performance in the musical. Both are as good as they were in the original, and that was very good.

Clarence is new. The 200-year-old angel is played this time by Michael Carruthers, and he is every bit as amusing as his predecessor, Michael Bunce.

Clarence, who persuades Bailey not to commit suicide by showing him what life in Bedford Falls would have been without him, is a kind of heavenly nerd, and Carruthers does very nicely with the role. His Clarence is a well-meaning, naive individual who desperately wants to earn his angel's wings.

The rest of the cast at Toby's is excellent. Michael Tilford, who did the script, repeats as Mr. Potter, the evil man who would control all of Bedford Falls, beginning with Bailey's savings and loan business. Tilford may be a bit young for the role, but this is no great obstacle.

Jeremy Goldman is the young George, Andrew Horn is Uncle Billy, who, through forgetfulness, sends George to the river's edge. Terri Mazzerella is Mrs. Bailey, mother to George, and Megan Lawrence is Violet, the town floozie.

They and the others make this a pretty wonderful ''Life.''

''It's A Wonderful Life'' continues at the Arena Stage through Jan. 5. The production at Toby's will alternate with ''South Pacific'' and will run through Dec. 29, then resume Jan. 7 and run through Jan. 19.

''It's A Wonderful Life''

**** Musical version of the Frank Capra film in which George Bailey, on the brink of financial disaster, considers suicide and is persuaded not to by Clarence, an angel eager to earn his wings.

CAST: Stephen Schmidt, Carole Graham Lehan, Michael Carruthers, Bill Krause, Jeremy Goldman, Andrew Horn, Michael Tilford, Terri Mazzerella, Megan Lawrence

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