Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

It's a Wonderful Life

Albuquerque Little Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's reviews of The Lion in Winter and A Christmas Carol

Philip J. Shortell and Micah Linford
Photo by Glenn Pepe
The movie It's a Wonderful Life, or at least some part of it, has been seen by almost everyone who watched TV in the 1970s and '80s. When Frank Capra's film came out in 1946, it was a moderate success, regarded highly enough to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. But it was fairly quickly forgotten—so much so that nobody ever bothered to renew a copyright on it, and in 1974 it fell into the public domain. Television stations could show it for free, without paying royalties, and show it they did. Every December, at least in my experience, you could not flip through the channels without coming upon it, seemingly any time of day or night. The wide exposure made it one of America's cultural staples, and most people already know the story of George Bailey, his wife Mary, the evil Mr. Potter, Clarence the angel, and all the rest of the enormous cast. Some people seem to have memorized almost every line.

The thing is, every time I happened upon it on TV, it was some segment of it; and although I've probably seen the entire movie in bits and pieces, I've never watched it all the way through from beginning to end. Therefore, it was a pleasure to experience the whole thing, live on stage, at the Albuquerque Little Theatre. This production is an adaptation by Doug Rand, but as far as I could tell, it's pretty much the entire script, verbatim. It doesn't pretend to be anything different from the movie. In fact, this production starts with the title projected onto the stage curtain while we listen to the opening credits music from the film, and the soundtrack music is used here and there during the play. The only real change is that, instead of the twinkling stars talking to each other at the beginning of the movie, we see two angels discussing what is going on below, and they remain up high on the stage during the entire show.

How the heck do you put a movie with so many different scenes (including a gymnasium floor that opens up over a swimming pool) onto a stage? Well, you get a fantastic set designer (Glenn Pepe), a superb director (James Cady), an expert stage manager (Donna Marie Barra), and a terrific cast of 34 talented actors. They meet the challenge and make it look effortless. The set is a marvel of things moving in and out and turning, so that no set change takes longer than a couple seconds. Amazing.

Wisely, director Jim Cady does not let his actors try to imitate any of the actors in the movie. The players here are every bit as good as those Hollywood stars anyway. Besides, the actors in the film could always do another take. Not so with live theater. With so many people on stage, how can one give the appropriate credit to each of them? Suffice it to say that everybody, down to those in the smallest parts, does fine work.

Micah Linford pretty much never leaves the stage after he shows up as the adult George Bailey. It's a killer role, moving from adolescent exuberance to suicidal despair, but Micah pulls it off perfectly. Jimmy Stewart didn't even cross my mind. Nobody can quite erase Donna Reed from my memory, but Janine O"Neill Loffelmacher comes close. Philip J. Shortell always completely inhabits his roles, even when it's the dastardly Mr. Potter. Pete Parkin acts appropriately befuddled as Clarence, and Mike Van Ryzin does a good job as another befuddled character, Uncle Billy. Two actors new to me, Brian Wise and Justin Estes, impressed me with their stage presence.

This show is another case of, even if you've seen the movie a zillion times, it would be very worth your while to see this live version. I think you will be awed by how well everyone involved has pulled off the transition from screen to stage, but it's not just the technical finesse that makes the show worth seeing. It's a great story, with real emotion, and it never gets old.

It's a Wonderful Life, through December 24, 2018, at Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, Albuquerque NM. Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00, with added performances on Saturday 12/8 at 2:00, Thursday 12/13 at 7:30, and Monday 12/24 at 1:00. Tickets $15 to $23. For tickets and information, visit or call the box office at 505-242-4750.