Stage review: A static radio remake of a Capra classic

The evergreen appeal of Frank Capra's film classic, “It's a Wonderful Life,” about a despairing Everyman who learns that his life has had profound meaning, translates not only to frequent TV airings during the holiday season, but to numerous live stagings.

Joe Landry's “Live Radio Play” adaptation, touring the country since the 1990s, has pretty much dominated recent theatrical territory, but that hasn't closed the door to other dramatized versions of the classic. Giving it a go locally: Theatre Unleashed, reprising its own 2011 radio-themed staging, “KAWL Presents ‘It's a Wonderful Life': A Radio Play for the Stage,” at the Missing Piece Theatre in Burbank.

In company member Jim Martyka's adaptation, directed by Erin Scott, failing 1940s-era radio station KAWL is putting on what looks to be its last broadcast, an in-studio Christmas performance of “It's a Wonderful Life,” starring Henry Fonda and Ginger Rogers. When the headliners don't show up, station owner Michael (Martyka) and his long-suffering girlfriend and assistant Melanie (Katie Sikkema) fill in as George and Mary Bailey. The rest of the “It's a Wonderful Life” cast members include tippling Victor (Carlos Martinez, too often stuck with slurring through his multiple roles), and a seemingly homeless “Man Off the Street” (Jacob Smith), recruited at the last minute to play George's redemptive angel Clarence.

Regrettably, Martyka's play-within-a-play, radio station framework is the weakest part of the show. Despite vintage looking microphones and costumes suggesting 1940s fashions, and despite some fine Christmas carol harmonies from the “KAWL Radio Girls” — Julia Plostnieks, Heather Lake and Jenn Scuderi — there is little sense of time and place when the cast portrays the radio station's “real life” personas during supposed commercial breaks and before and after the “broadcast.” Beth Wallan, as radio star Frannie McGinn and as Mother Bailey, is an exception, giving both characters vintage substance and twinkle.

Silent stage business from Dain Ouradnik, who opens the show as a shy janitor readying the radio studio, is too prolonged. Corey Lynn Howe and Alicia Reyes, who have no “It's a Wonderful Life” characters to boost their stage presence, operate a lackluster sound effects table. Dialogue about the financial woes of the station and about Michael's delay in offering Melanie a marriage proposal is delivered with expository haste and with an unconvincing lack of awareness that the studio audience can hear the exchanges. Repeated reminders that the station is “on the air” during these exchanges simply telegraph that the station's eventual salvation will mirror the heartwarming miracle in the film.

The pleasure and the life in this holiday offering occur primarily when the actors stand at their “microphones” and merge into the film's characters. Performances deepen, led by Martyka's strong, uncloying portrayal of the good and self-sacrificing George, Steven Pennington as sympathetic Uncle Billy (whose Christmas Eve loss of the Bailey Building and Loan's $8,000 precipitates George's spiritual awakening) and Smith as Clarence, the angel who earns his wings by showing George what his life has meant to others.

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about stage and culture for Marquee.

What: "KAWL Presents 'It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play for the Stage'" by Theatre Unleashed

Where: The Missing Piece Theatre, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 15. $25

Cost: Pay-what-you-want with the donation of a toy for Toys for Tots.

Contact: (818) 563-1100,

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