The Troubadour Theater Company is back with its Christmas season favorite It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life, a spoof of the Hollywood holiday film classic interspersed with Stevie Wonder hits, often with lyrics rewritten to fit the movie’s plot.  Though I found the troupe’s recent As U2 Like It a more entertaining and polished production, Stevie Wonderful does have many bright and funny moments, especially for fans of the original film.

The show opens cleverly as a cast member crosses the stage holding a sign with the letters THX written on it while offstage voices hum the well-known background chords. In true Hollywood fashion, black-and-white main titles are then projected above the stage, followed by Troubie vet Rick Batalla as the angel Clarence singing Wonder’s “Have A Talk With God,” Stevie Wonderful’s cast of characters kneeling in prayer to the song’s funky beat.  (Clarence, as you may recall, has been sent down to take suicidal George Bailey on a flashback journey through his “wonderful life.”)

We first meet George as a child (played by 6-footer Caleb Rapoport) and learn of his life in Bedford Falls to the strains of “Living For The City.”  There is of course George’s future wife Mary (“her legs are kind of hairy”) Hatch (Erin Matthews) and kid brother Harry (Matt Merchant). The cast goes on to recreate the movie’s most memorable early scenes, such as when George saves Harry from drowning, or when he stops the town druggist from mistakenly delivering poison to an ailing child.  (“Look here, Mr. Gower. It says ‘poison’ right on the bottle.”)

Soon, Troubie chief/Stevie Wonderful director Matt Walker has taken over the role of “adult George,” prompting Clarence to comment “He got shorter,” which indeed he did, Rapoport being considerably taller than Walker.

Doing his broadest Jimmy Stewart impression, Walker sings out Wonder’s “Ebony And Ivory” with George’s dad, appropriately retitled “Ivory And Ivory,” there being no people of color in George’s family despite George’s and his mom’s 1970s afros. Coincidentally, sets and costumes have up to this point been in 1940s Hollywood black and white. Then, thanks to a telegram from Ted Turner (“Here’s some money to colorize your show!”) and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting design, It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life switches from B&W to living color.

For those who wonder how the Troubies will recreate the high school dance sequence where the teenage population of Bedford Falls ends up getting drenched in their prom night best (when the gymnasium floor opens up to reveal an Olympic-sized swimming pool beneath), the solution is a simple one.  Just show a clip from the movie with Walker’s and Matthews’ faces photo-shopped onto Jimmy Stewart’s and Donna Reed’s bodies (to the strains of “Sir Duke”).

Other Stevie Wonder hits which accompany George on his trip down memory lane include Afroed Ma (Lisa Valenzuela) giving George her best advice about Mary with Wonder’s “Send One Your Love” plus an extra bit of homespun wisdom: “No glove, no love.” Scarlet lady Violet (Jen Siefert)  gets her own theme song (“Part Time Lover”), while “My Cherie Amour” becomes “My Mary Amour” on George and Mary’s wedding day. When Bedford Falls’ local bank finds itself in crisis mode, George hands out cash to the strains of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.”  George and a pregnant Mary await the birth of their first child to “Ribbon In The Sky,” and no medley of Stevie Wonder hits would be complete without “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.”

As in every Troubie show, It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life is jam-packed with puns, adlibs, and pop culture references, though there seem to be a higher number of “groaners” this time than usual. “Grinner” or “groaner”—you decide:

Violet shows up in a low-cut dress with black marker cleavage, prompting Walker to remark, “It looks like a seagull landed on your chest.”  When George asks the hard-of-hearing Mr. Potter (wheelchair-bound Morgan Russler in Lionel Barrymore mode) to “Give me the loan,” Potter can’t seem to stop mishearing the word “loan.” See if you can imagine the visual gags which accompany these examples: “No, not Eva Peron.  No, not Patti Lupone as Eva Peron.  No, not silicone.  No, not cortisone.  No, not my clone.”  There are also Obama and Cindy McCain jokes galore, some grinners, some groaners.

Saturday afternoon’s performance was interrupted by the ringing of an audience member’s cell phone, prompting Walker to go into an extended chat with the caller, who “just called” (not) to say “I love you,” but to ask her theatergoing friend “Where’s the dog food?”  (Turns out, it was under the sink.) Later, following Saturday’s curtain calls, cast member Rapoport (who had several dozen friends in attendance) proposed to girlfriend Whitney, seated in the front row with her young son August. (She accepted!)  As in every Troubies show, what one audience sees may be entirely different from what another audience experiences.

Having only once watched It’s A Wonderful Life in its entirety, some of the show’s gags just whooshed over my head, like the chorus of “Hee Haw” which accompanied every mention of Sam Wainwright’s name or the black bird attached to Uncle Billy’s shoulder.  (A later Wikipedia check explained the former but not the latter joke.) 

Cast members are all on the same wacky Troubies wavelength, having performed in show after show together. The comedically, vocally, and improvisationally talented bunch also includes Travis Clark, Beth Kennedy, Breanna Pine, Mike Sulprizio, Dan Waskom, and Kimberly Wood, who as Zuzu gets to utter the memorable “Everytime a bell rings, another angel gets its wings.”

The production benefits enormously from music director/drummer Eric Heinly and his fellow band members Andre “Padre” holmes, Cameron Graves, and Tori Ruffin.  It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life’s lively choreography by Ameenah Kaplan and Christine Lakin includes a funky “I Wish” and a show-stopping “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” Sharon McGunigle’s costumes are a fancifully eclectic bunch. (When Clarence shows George what the world would have been like without him, the entire cast turn into angels dressed in white, with Pivnick’s black light turning their wigs a fluorescent yellow.)  The design team is completed by Mike Jespersen (set design), Robert Arturo Ramirez (sound design) and newly-engaged Rapoport (media design.) 

If I liked rather than loved It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life, it’s probably because I’m a good deal less familiar with the movie than I am with As U2 Like It’s Shakespeare original.  Fans of the movie seemed to be eating up every minute of Saturday’s matinee performance. If you’re one of those people who’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life a zillion times, it’s more than likely that you will be equally entranced.

Falcon Theatre,4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
December 13, 2008
Photos: Cheryl Games

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