Both George Bailey and the actor playing him live across the land learn lessons about life, love, community, and Christmas in Jim Martyka’s doubly delightful, two-times touching It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, back for another December at Theatre Unleashed.

It’s Christmas season 1947 and station head Michael Anderson (Carey Matthews) has gathered together a group of friends for what may be Radio KAWL’s swan song.

They include longtime girlfriend Melanie Peters (Heather Lynn Smith), who’s also the station’s second in command; old-timer Steven Pennington (Richard Reich), who’s been around since the days they did shows every day in front of packed houses; glamorous, seasoned diva Claudia LaBelle (Libby Letlow), who’s just bought her third home on Sunset Boulevard; handsome Hollywood lothario Clifton Logan (Eric Stachura), who’s recently been caught in yet another home-wrecking scandal; star-struck country boy Mitchell Thompson (Nick Salter), who’s “just tickled pink” to be doing today’s show; dumb brunette Jennifer DaVinci (Brittany Stahl), who’s changed her name to DaVinci “because he was like this really smart guy, like a painter or inventor or something”; character actor Victor Saul (Samwise Aaron), who’s tipsy as ever and making sure the flask in his pocket keeps it that way; and a nameless Man Off The Street (Adam Briggs), who’s wandered in as if from another world.

Also set to appear (and certain to boost ratings when they do) are Henry Fonda and Ginger Rogers, music to everyone’s ears until Michael’s ditzy cousin Judy Anderson (Emily Donn) suddenly remembers the telegrams that arrived earlier in the week announcing the film stars’ unavailability.

With only seconds to go before the broadcast begins, Michael and Melanie end up with little choice but to step in themselves, and when it turns out no one has been assigned the role of Clarence, Man Off The Street gets picked to play the Angel who teaches George It’s A Wonderful Life he’s been living.

Playwright Martyka takes a tried-and-true genre and makes magic with it by not only recreating a type of programming that once had an entire country glued to family radio consoles (the actors let each just-read page of dialog fall to the floor like autumn leaves, Judy provides inventive if not always recognizable Foley effects) but by creating a second storyline (Michael’s worries about his radio station parallel George’s about his Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan) with its own colorful cast of characters and, more importantly, its own payoff.

In setting It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play only a couple years after WWII, playwright Martyka does jump the television-craze gun by about half a decade, the station’s worries seeming premature with TV still in less than half-of-one-percent of American homes at the time, but no matter.

With director Jenn Scuderi Crafts and her crackerjack cast more than up to the tasks at hand, It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play offers an hour and forty minutes of nostalgic fun (and maybe even a few tears before Clarence earns his wings).

The next best thing to Jimmy Stewart himself, Matthews anchors the production with authenticity and heart, ably supported by the lovely, plucky Smith, Donn’s deliciously inept Judy, and harmoniously harmonizing song birds Corrine Glazer (Harriet), Jessica J’aime (Honey), and Theresa Stroll (Holly).

The rest of the cast get to bring to life not only radio actors but the multiple roles each is assigned, and in the interest of brevity, I’ll simply say that each and every one of them is divine in each and every part they play.

It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play looks terrific on Ann Hurd’s radio station set, Gregory Crafts lights the production with flair, and though Gretchen Burneko and Letlow’s costumes and J’aime and Letlow’s hair and makeup read anywhere between mid-WWII and the Korean Conflict, they do give the production a period feel. Luis “Tony” Gonzalez scores points for his music direction and choral arrangements as well. Beth Scorzato is stage manager.

An appropriately “nice” counterpart to the “naughtiness” of Theatre Unleashed’s concurrently running A Very Die Hard Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is holiday-season live theater at its most delightful and heartwarming.

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The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 7, 2017


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