STAGE REVIEW : Excess Makes for Not-So-Wonderful 'Life'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

If it's December, it must be "It's a Wonderful Life."

Frank Capra's movie is popping up everywhere, like a rite of Christmas. And so, now, is the musical.

Or musicals.

The Sheldon Harnick-Joe Raposo version, "A Wonderful Life," which had a trial run at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse in 1989, is now at Washington's Arena Stage and testing the waters for an ascent to Broadway.

Not to be deterred by any of this, the Riverside Civic Light Opera has come up with yet another adaptation, this one going by the full title, "It's a Wonderful Life," and playing through the weekend at Landis Auditorium on the Riverside Community College campus.

It is an earnest, old-fashioned musical, loaded with good intentions--but it does not work out all that wonderfully. Aside from its unabashed sentimentality, this Richard Stover (music and lyrics) and Anthony Rhine (book) version simply wants to do too much.

And in too linear a fashion. Rhine's book covers pretty much all the bases in this story of the self-sacrificing George Bailey and his efforts to do right with his Building and Loan in the friendly little town of Bedford Falls.

As a plot, with its extra-terrestrial in the person of George's guardian angel, Clarence, who tries to earn his "wings" by saving George from himself, "Life" has the flavor, if not the scope, of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." It's a charming and slender Christmas story that begs to become a charming and slender musical.

Charming, however, does not equate a Hallmark card, and what happened to slender? If Stover's music and lyrics are entirely too pat, Rhine's book is overloaded with stick figures and scenes that should be simplified, abbreviated or left out altogether. We don't have to see every little detail.

The story, from childhood to maturity, is well-known enough to yield no surprises, so composer and bookwriter should be all the more pressed to provide a few in the way they texture the plot and the presentation. A musical needs flow. This one starts and stops and starts again with the predictability of a clock at virtually every song.

One way is to give us characters more conflicted and rounded than the ones we see here. Among this "Life's" better portraits are George (performed with the requisite torment and grace by Mitchell Anderson, formerly of "Doogie Howser, M.D.") and Clarence (Ed Parry in a crusty, good-humored performance that provides some much-needed lightness).

But Mr. Potter (Chuck Abernathy) is all villain and Susan K. Hannibal's Mary eludes the goody-two-shoes trap thanks only to her simple presentational style.

Laura Lynn Stafford has a few good moments and one palatable song ("You Gotta Be Kiddin,' ") as Vi, the town's sexual pushover. And as Young Mary, Kathryn Young's rousing rendition of "Coconut" is vibrant in a way that the rest of the musical is not.

A footnote: Bookwriter Rhine contributed music and lyrics for one of the best songs in the score, an appealing ballad sung by George called "Let Me Be Me." But it is perhaps a sign of director David Nelson's inability to grapple with this overbuilt musical (it has a cast of 50) that placement of this upbeat ballad comes at an inappropriate spot--right after George's nightmarish visit to Bedford Falls as it might have been without him. The best sequence mismatched with the best song is a measure of the problems in this "Life."

* "It's a Wonderful Life," Riverside Civic Light Opera, Landis Auditorium, Riverside Community College, Riverside. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10.50-$13. (714) 684-3240, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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