Holiday carols play in the background. The tree is nicely decorated. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, Long Island, where the delightful A Wonderful Life: the Musical is playing through January 8, 2012.
The beloved Frank Capra film translates seamlessly to the stage with music by Sheldon Harnick (The Apple Tree) and the late Joe Raposo (theme song writer of Sesame Street and many of our favorite children's classics). In fact, hearing the familiar story sung and paired with exquisite dancing breathes new life into the 65-year old film while still capturing that nostalgic and hopeful feeling of the original.
George Bailey just can't win. All he has ever wanted to do is leave Bedford falls, go to college, and become a brilliant architect. Unfortunately, life continues to block him from achieving any of these dreams. It is a concept we can all relate to. But sometimes when things don't go just the way you want, other remarkable things take their place. Even though George doesn't get to travel the entire world and obtain his college degree, he does have a wonderful life. Except he doesn't always see it that way, and when we first meet him, distract has struck and he is ready to end it all. Enter Clarence (charmingly played by John Shuman), an angel who has been waiting to get his wings for 200 years. He is sent to Bedford Falls by the man upstairs to make sure George Bailey lives. And so our story begins…
Will Reynolds, who portrays George and is on stage for pretty much the entire 2 hour and 30-minute musical, is endearing, commanding, and gracefully transitions from being an idealistic teenager to a hardworking husband, father, and business owner. George is not afraid to feel things, whether good or bad, and Reynolds, whether he is singing, dancing, dreaming or feeling dejected, brings this story to life just as emotionally as James Stewart did in the film. The true angel of this production is Alison Walla (A Tale of Two Cities), who plays Mary Hatch, the woman that George eventually marries. As a character, Mary has such faith in George and is incredibly good-natured about where life has taken them. She is sincere, caring, and believes so strongly in her and George's love. The chemistry between Reynolds and Mary is organic and down-to-earth. Watching them grow together through the 20-year span of the musical is a treat, and a realistic portrayal of any relationship that wades through the good and bad times.
A Wonderful Life: The Musical, sharply directed by John Simpkins, rightfully shines through its music (wonderful job by musical director James Cunningham) and its energetic and Broadway-caliber choreography by Jennifer Werner (current associate director of Book of Mormon). The scene in the Bedford Falls High School gym is absolute fun. The ensemble as a whole is meant to perform together with standout performances from Ryan Hilliard as the ruthless bully Mr. Potter, Summer Broyhill (Hairspray) as the enchanting Violet Bick, and Bruce Rebold as the scatterbrained yet sweet Uncle Billy.
There is so much to love about the latest Engeman production. A Wonderful Life is a story that celebrates family, tradition, and the constant search for happiness. It is a story that warms audiences even as its darkest points because at one time or another George Bailey's story is one that we all have experienced. During this special time of year, when you hold those you love close and lend support and assistance to those you may never meet, It's a Wonderful Life reminds us what this season is truly about.