Sentimental 'Wonderful Life' shines at dinner theater

December 12, 1997|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Strong voices and sappy lyrics combine to make "It's a Wonderful Life" a good sentimental evening for the whole family during holiday time.

The musical version of the Frank Capra film classic appears at Toby's Dinner Theatre for the third time, continuing through Jan. 18.

For the few who have not seen the movie, the story focuses on George Bailey, a man whose life never seems to go the way he has planned in the small town of Bedford Falls.

In a moment of crisis, Bailey wishes he had never been born, and, with the help of angel Clarence, he gets to see his wish fulfilled.

While the film emphasizes the darkness that would be if Bailey had never lived, the play takes a different focus -- seeing what made Bailey the man that he is and how he inherited his problems.

Played by Stephen Schmidt, Bailey is a likable unsung hero, always doing what is best for others rather than himself. With a strong voice and understated acting ability, Schmidt allows Bailey to be a man of imperfection, frustrated at his own life and not knowing how to change its path.

Schmidt's performance is matched by that of Carole Lehan, who plays Mary Hatch, Bailey's girlfriend and, later, wife in the play. Lehan's sweet voice manages to overcome the incredibly syrupy lyrics and keep the audience involved in the Bedford Falls plight.

It would have been interesting to see the play without the musical numbers, which dragged down the overall quality of the show. Some of the numbers, such as "Syncopation Rag," were impossible to understand because of the quick lyrics, and others, such as "The Greatest Gift," were overly predictable in rhyme and melody.

Luckily, the cast worked well together to overcome those slow points, keeping a lightness to a piece that could become overly dark and gloomy.

Ensemble pieces moved quickly and managed to overcome the awkwardness that is occasionally intrinsic to theater in the round. In particular, George Bailey's mother, portrayed by Lynne R. Sigler, and Andrew Horn as George Bailey's Uncle Billy, stood out.

David Lee was menacing as Mr. Potter, who tries to close down Bailey's Savings and Loan. The play never mentions why Potter is so black at heart and hates the Baileys so, which is a little confusing at times.

One particularly bright spot was Clarence the angel, played by David James. With a boyish grin and an easy charm, James made the audience laugh with his quick quips and naive attempts to interfere in Bailey's life.

It was too bad that Clarence appeared only briefly in the draggy first act, which could have used a few more laughs and a little less angst.

Instead, Clarence's antics were almost solely confined to the second act, where his rendition of "Ya Gotta Have Wings" showed off James' singing ability and his dancing panache. He definitely deserved those wings.

There are no surprises as the show winds to a close. Bailey realizes that his life does have meaning -- even if it is not the life he had dreamed of in his early years.

His wife, Mary, and three children by his side, Bailey ends his ride into the darkness with a earnest hopefulness -- a heartwarming ending for a cold winter night.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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