It was probably inevitable that the beloved holiday film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” was going to be blessed with song and dance — in fact, multiple times. In its Paper Mill Playhouse preem, “A Wonderful Life” retains at its saccharine core the inspirational tale of a luckless but noble small-town businessman who, with the help of a guardian angel, conquers greed and despair. Veteran librettist Sheldon Harnick has not altered Frank Capra’s sentimental film narrative, but a labored score by the late Joe Raposo doesn’t do much to enhance the Christmas perennial.
An able cast slips comfortably into roles firmly identified on the screen by James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers.
James Clow is the resilient George Bailey, who forsakes a long-awaited trip to Europe and a college career when he is recruited to assume control over a building and loan association upon the death of his father. Clow invests the role with a proper blend of boyish charm and determination. His flavorful baritone is best served by “George’s Prayer,” a plea to heaven for strength to survive; and the plaintive lullaby “Precious Little.”
George’s dutifully supportive wife is given sweet and wholesome definition by Catherine Brunell. Her bright soprano reading of “I Couldn’t Be With Anyone but You” becomes the sweet affirmation of a dedicated partner. J.B. Adams well serves the role of the fumbling, boozy uncle who misplaces company funds.
Jeff Brooks is Clarence, the angel who has waited a mere 200 years to get his wings. The character employs the same cherubic twinkle one associates with the Starkeeper of “Carousel.” Brooks sails and swings gleefully from the belfry ropes in anticipation of his forthcoming “Wings.” It becomes one of the few moments in the show when the word “charm” is not only the order of the day but also serves as a richly redeeming diversion in an earthbound score.
Nick Wyman is not quite the curmudgeon so well defined by Barrymore on the screen, but his icy sternness makes for a proper villain. He’s given well-defined musical identity with “First Class All the Way.”
The brightest and snappiest musical sequence is a rousing first-act Charleston, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler with high-kicking flapper flavor. The sequence has nothing to do with the narrative, with the possible exception of defining the era, but it employs a spirited dance ensemble.
The attempted suicide in the film involves a leap from a bridge into turbulent waters by both George and Clarence. Onstage the frigid waters are replaced by a roaring locomotive, a crowd-pleasing special effect.
Staging by James Brennan is reasonably tight and fluent, but those who know the film all too well from its annual over-exposure on the tube will find the tale telegraphs itself with glaring clarity. The musical numbers only slow the pace.
A functional but less than distinctive set design amounts to sliding and dropped panels of tree-lined streets, village storefronts, a stained-glass rose window and a massive floor-to-ceiling portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte in the office of the town’s manipulative business bully.