A musical question: why?

THEATER REVIEW

December 19, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and it's also beginning to look a lot like a trend: Two different musical versions of the 1946 Frank Capra movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," are now playing on area stages.

However, based on the latest entry -- an original adaptation at Toby's in Columbia -- there's no immediate threat to the seasonal proliferation of "Christmas Carols."

Toby's version has been scripted by Michael Tilford with a score by David Nehls. Though far smaller than the glitzy Sheldon Harnick-Joe Raposo "A Wonderful Life" at Washington's Arena Stage, both shows suffer from a similar shortcoming: They fail to offer a compelling reason to set Capra's Christmas chestnut to song.

Aside from a number of highly competent performances, the strongest aspect of Toby's version -- reworked since its 1989 debut, but still too long -- is its nearly through- composed score. Not only is music woven virtually throughout the show, but most of the songs develop character and advance the plot.

In case you've missed the annual blitz of reruns, the plot concerns George Bailey (Stephen Schmidt), a would-be suicide whose life is saved when his guardian angel, Clarence (Michael Carruthers), shows him what the world would have missed if he'd never been born.

The songs at Toby's aren't especially catchy, but most work well in context. This is particularly true of "If Only I Could Reach Him," which begins as a pang of frustration sung by George's wife, Mary (Carole Graham Lehan), and evolves into a duet with Clarence. It is also one of the best examples of director Toby Orenstein's moving staging.

Though extremely clever at times, her staging can also be too moving. Capra's sentimentality came to be dubbed "Capracorn," and Arena Stage wisely undercuts the sap with humor. Toby's mistakenly enhances it with melodrama.

At the end of the story, angel Clarence earns his wings. But, entertaining though the area's two productions may be, neither succeeds in bearing the Capra classic aloft on wings of song.

"It's a Wonderful Life" continues at Toby's in Columbia through Dec. 29 and again Jan. 7-19; call (410) 995-1969.

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