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A Different Take on ‘Wonderful Life’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Radio on television? What a concept.

But that’s exactly what turns up tonight in PBS’ “Merry Christmas, George Bailey,” a taping of a radio broadcast-style rendering of the classic holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Even in an industry prone to remakes, that’s a mouthful, and one which somehow manages to chew every bit of sustenance out of the much-loved picture, from film to radio to live performance to tape to television. But there’s no denying the worthiness of the program’s fundamental goal, which was to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Taped at a live presentation at the Pasadena Playhouse earlier this month, the production features a sterling cast from Hollywood and Broadway that includes Bill Pullman in the central role of George Bailey; Nathan Lane as the Guardian Angel; Martin Landau as the conniving Mr. Potter; Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Hatch, Bailey’s wife; and Sally Field as his mother.

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Hewing closely to the concept of radio, the performers work with vintage-style microphones, reading from scripts adapted from a 1947 Lux radio broadcast promoting the 1946 picture. The live music, played by an 11-piece pit orchestra, draws from Dimitri Tiomkin’s themes from the original film, and onstage sound effects are provided by veteran sound effect engineer Ray Erlenborn.

Viewed as television, the show initially has an appealingly archaic quality. It’s fascinating to watch the differences between the actors as they deal with the relatively unfamiliar technique--for most of them--of acting with their voices. Predictably, the most effective are those with the most idiosyncratic vocal styles--Lane’s quirky, inimitable sound; Jerry Van Dyke playing Uncle Billy in his familiar, wacky, foul-up screw-up style; and Carol Kane (as Mary’s mother) creating yet another ear-grating but hilarious scold.

And, despite the inherently difficult dramatic method of having actors move to a microphone, deliver their lines, then return to their seats, there are times when interaction takes place between the characters, and the story comes alive visually as well as aurally. The essentially expositional dialogue, for example, between Lane and Joe Mantegna as Joseph comes alive via both actors’ ability to add little vocal inflections and gestures to their exchanges. Pullman’s romance with Miller has its charming moments, and Landau brings intensity to every line he utters.

Still, the fact that this is simply an elaborately staged reading of a work so familiar that it resonates with visual images is ever-present. And the comparisons--even aside from the distractions of the radio format--aren’t always complimentary.

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In the primary role, for example, Pullman approaches George Bailey with a kind of focused seriousness--understandable, perhaps, for a character about to commit suicide because he feels his life has been worthless. But, despite Pullman’s good intentions and his effort to find his own version of the character, it never matches the emotional connectedness of the Jimmy Stewart interpretation, with its unique rendering of Bailey’s everyman qualities.

Producer Jimmy Hawkins--who played the youngest son in the original 1946 film--has worked hard to bring this project together, despite complex legal obstacles that obliged him to use “Merry Christmas, George Bailey” rather than the original title. But it nonetheless remains radio on television. And the best way to watch it may simply be to close one’s eyes and listen.

* “Merry Christmas, George Bailey” airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.


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