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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013

It’s a Wonderful Stage Show

Next Act stages a radio play of the Capra Christmas classic

Next Act Theatre
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Few holiday films attract the kind of attention that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has enjoyed for about half a century. Now the perennially popular classic film can be enjoyed live, onstage at Next Act Theatre. The show, a repeat of Next Act’s production from the 2012 holiday season, opened Thursday.

Well-known Milwaukee actor Mary MacDonald Kerr has adapted the film script into a radio play with its own back-story. It’s Christmas Eve, and the radio cast is giving its final broadcast before the Milwaukee station changes to an all-music format. The program manager has insisted on a retelling of his wife’s favorite story: It’s a Wonderful Life. During commercial breaks, the radio cast tries to imagine how “wonderful” their own lives will be once they’re unemployed.

Next Act decided to reprise last year’s hit production after turning away dozens of disappointed theatergoers. The entire cast agreed to reunite for this year’s show, and what a humdinger of a cast it is. This is a family show that will delight older adults (especially the ad jingles for Milwaukee beers), and may get younger kids thinking about how their grandparents had to use their imaginations before the age of Xbox, YouTube videos and Skype.

The radio show’s six-person cast must create the entire community of Bedford Falls in the mid-1950s. Stan (Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini) initially insists on sticking to his familiar role as the show’s Foley (sound-effects) artist. However, when a couple of actors phone the radio station before show time and report they’ve been stranded in Chicago, it’s all hands on deck. By the end of the radio play, Stan has been drafted to be the voices of Uncle Billy, the bumbling co-founder of the family’s savings and loan business; Martini, a local bar owner; and a cab driver. Plus, he provides many of the sound effects that were so important to radio stories of this era. Cecsarini also directs the show, which seems to flow effortlessly from start to finish. It seems he is as versatile in real life as is his stage character.

Kerr, the show’s adapter, also appears onstage as Judy (who plays Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life). She creates real chemistry with actor Norman Moses as the story’s leading man, George Bailey. As those familiar with the film recall, Jimmy Stewart played George to Donna Reed’s Mary. These actors, superbly accompanied by Debra Babich, Bo Johnson and Jack Forbes Wilson, create their own special magic. And don’t be surprised if the audience chimes in at the end, when the cast runs through a medley of well-known Milwaukee ad jingles.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show continues at Next Act Theatre through Jan. 5. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org