It's a Wonderful Life: A New Musical
A misguided musical stage adaptation of Frank Capra’s Christmas classic
Fans of Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life will no doubt be at least dimly aware of the film’s odd, top-heavy structure. The vast majority of IAWL’s two-hour running time is spent in prologue: the greatest hits of George Bailey’s life are played out in extended flashback, before we catch up with him in the present, contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. The subsequent meat of the story – George leaping into the river to rescue Clarence, his guardian angel; Clarence showing George what the world would have been like had he never been born; George’s recognition that life really is kind of wonderful – plays out over a tight 30 minute section before the credits.
This skewed structure is even more apparent on the stage of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where the cast of Thomas M Sharkey’s musical adaptation batter through all the scene-setting material in time for the intermission. Cramming so much detail into so little time (and on a much smaller budget that Capra ever had) has proved too great a challenge, however: there’s an over-reliance on voice-over to narrate the most significant episodes in George’s life, meaning anyone without strong knowledge of the film may struggle to absorb all the pertinent plot points. Scrappy writing is also to blame for the disappearance of the Bailey children – only Zuzu (played by a revolving cast of Trinity Campbell, Niamh Barlow and Brooke Poppy Haggart) shows up on stage, the other kids having been ‘sent to their grandmother’s’ when George (a likeable-enough John Jack) starts breaking down. Of course, there are undoubtedly good reasons behind this manoeuvre, but it’s done so blatantly it just feels lazy.
If the subtractions leave a sour taste though, the additions are worse. Many of Sharkey’s songs do the trick adequately – early number ‘Save George’ comes together well, and the title song, despite having an awful pun at its heart (‘One dear, full life’, anyone?), is eminently hummable – but the play reaches its nadir in a campy can-can routine featuring the wheelchair-bound villain Mr Potter (Peter Harding), which has more than a whiff of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ about it, and not in a good way.
Credit where it’s due: set designer Charles Cusick Smith makes full and impressive use of the height of the stage during the bridge-set scenes, and Clarence’s daredevil plunge into the river sets up a pacy second act, but overall, this is a far from wonderful adaptation.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre, until Sun 22 Dec.