A musical version of “It’s A Wonderful Life”? Sounds like a trip to sentimentality central. But the most surprising virtue of this adaptation of the well-loved movie is its welcome, intelligent restraint. The New Wolsey Theater’s sincere world-premiere production lacks the imaginative flair — and the budget — to realize the show’s full potential, but Steve Brown’s attractive, carefully wrought score deserves further development and a future life.
In this latest in the slew of screen-to-stage transfers, the plot elements remain intact. This is still the same tale of the awakening of George Bailey, the uber-ordinary guy created by James Stewart, played here by the engaging Paul Thornley. Seemingly thwarted in all his hopes, George is saved from suicide by an angel who shows what life in homey Bedford Falls would have been without his decency. Horrified by what he sees, George returns to discover that happiness is in your own backyard.
Stewart himself once told an interviewer: “If I had my career over again? Maybe I’d say to myself, speed it up a little.” With its trim two-hour running time (plus intermission), Brown and his co-book and lyric writer Francis Matthews certainly cannot be accused of maudlin dawdling. Which, paradoxically, is where some of the problems lie.
Brown’s almost entirely sung-through score handles the details of small-town life as evenly as the emotional climaxes. In a plot that has to cover so many individual episodes from George’s life, its forward momentum is welcome. But that comes at a price. Few of the intended highs register strongly enough. Too many episodes feel, well, episodic because they lack sufficient variation and defined dramatic shape.
That evenness of tone is largely the result of musical writing that emulates Stephen Sondheim’s practice of moving away from discrete songs and into something close to sung dialogue. The exception is the scene in which George and Mary (Helen Anker) finally declare their love in a lush, heartfelt duet. “I’ll throw a rope around the moon,” sings George; as the orchestral sound swells and a video moon looms into view, you sense audiences’ tear ducts happily filling.
Sondheim’s imprint is evident elsewhere, not least in the solo for wicked Potter (a serpentine Paul Leonard) whose malicious sung catalogue of evil intent is dangerously close to the judge’s material in “Sweeney Todd.” There are distinct echoes, too, of “Sunday in the Park With George,” not least in the orchestration that smartly augments just three keyboards with tuned percussion, notably glockenspiel and xylophone.
Brown’s masterstroke is the more striking second half. Matching the retelling of the story of happy Bedford Falls transformed into soulless Potterville, Brown cunningly reworks his first-act musical material. This means he can legitimately reprise his tunes — and allows audiences now familiar with the material to hear it reworked to serve different dramatic ends.
The other change is the handling of the angel. Gone is the movie’s benign old man and in comes a younger, black character (a buoyant Jo Servi), a change that adds more energy to the proceedings.
Peter Rowe’s production patiently covers all the bases. Libby Watson’s neat design moves economically and swiftly between multiple locations set up by the songs, but some of the production choices — waving blue fabric for the river — are too literal to carry dramatic weight. The hardworking cast moves easily in and out of roles as the townsfolk, keeping up the heartbeat of the story. But what’s lacking is real punch and choreographic zest, especially in the bigger numbers.
There are moments in which the writers use spoken dialogue against underscoring to impressive effect. Further use of this device, plus a tightened book, could certainly help shape the material more effectively. Currently, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is stronger on charm than on dramatic impact.