Pictured: Tanner Rose and Elizabeth Reese. Photo courtesy of MTKC Pro.
By Bec Pennington
When the film was released over 70 years ago, it was met with mostly tepid reviews and a disappointing box office return. Hopes for Oscars were dashed by a post-war reflection piece that swept instead; the only real triumph in the moment was the special effects director’s innovation for the production of a more realistic form of fake snow. And that might well have been it for the Christmas classic, except for a strange twist three decades later, when a confusion over ownership rights put it mistakenly in the public domain and tv stations all over the country began playing “It’s a Wonderful Life” as part of their holiday lineups. Now an integral thread in the tapestry of tradition, it’s almost a crime to reach December 25th without a viewing.
It’s certainly also a tradition in our growing arts-centered city to dress up and get out to see a show or two on the regular, and especially during this magical season. Times have changed for film distribution, but B&B Theaters has taken a strong leap forward with an experimental marriage of live theater and movie house in Shawnee that has the promise of success. Theatergoers can look forward to the cushiness and cupholders of a film viewing with the intimacy and energy of live entertainment. MTKC Pro’s production of A WONDERFUL LIFE is a perfect introduction to the concept as a fun, lighthearted, and wholesome experience for all ages.
Like its non-musical predecessor, A WONDERFUL LIFE is a sweet love story that surprises with depth. Set in the tumultuous years between the stock market crash and just after World War II, the plot poignantly illustrates the fear and desperation of the Great Depression. So many lost their dreams, were stripped of their ability to act as men, and so many succumbed to the notion of worthlessness and took their own lives in that battle. George Bailey has sacrificed his dreams as well, and survived by guiltily clinging to obligation. Now that everyone else is getting back on their feet, he is mourning his lost opportunities and facing what is to him the worst of failures. His guardian angel, a ghost named Clarence who is hoping to gain his wings, is sent to help George find his value again.
All the while, standing tall with an open heart and trusting spirit is Mary. While her husband bitterly longs for a different life and only reluctantly does the right thing, Mary readily accepts George’s decisions and joyfully relinquishes their wealth and security for mercy’s sake. Though Clarence does give him clarity, it is Mary who answers George’s plea with God, “Show me the way.”
Technically, the accompaniment at times drowns some dialog, but the live orchestra is nevertheless a beautiful part of the show. The space is used well, with the projection screen utilized as backdrop, and a custom lighting setup over the stage. Audiences will be especially delighted with the excellent vocals of the entire cast, particularly with Elizabeth Reese and Tanner Rose’s capable performances, and Max Brown is fantastic as Clarence.
Whether you’ve seen it dozens of times or never before, there’s something special about this story; it’s easy to get drawn in and hard to forget. The musical version is humorous and touching, just as delightful as its inspiration, and the magic of live theater adds the right spark of excitement, perfect for a crisp winter evening with friends.
A WONDERFUL LIFE runs through December 17th. For more information visit mtkc.org.