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It's A Wonderful Life

Directed by Stephen Stearns

NEYT will present the all-time-favorite film holiday classic, "It's A Wonderful Life", in December of 2008.  The director, Stephen Stearns, will use the original movie script as the basis of the production.  Rather than being set in the original motion picture town of Bedford Falls, however, the NEYT version will take place in a Vermont town--Brattleboro, in fact.  

The drama is a modern day Scrooge story, although it takes place during the 20's, 30's and 40's.  George's father, Peter Bailey, is a Good Samaritan who seeks to build community by lending money to hardworking folks who can't get a loan from the hard-nosed businessman, Mr. Potter.  Potter is dead set on owning the entire town and very nearly accomplishes that feat.  In the end, George, Peter's eldest son, sacrifices all his dreams to help out the downtrodden, only to find himself faced with charges of embezzlement and jail.  Meanwhile Clarence (George's guardian angel), while keeping a close eye on George is forced to take desperate measures to save his charge from suicide.  Like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, It's A Wonderful Life is filled with memorable New England characters and a stunning plot to equal the best Dickens and the "Gift of the Magi".  The play is suitable to folks of all ages, even the very young.  It will be NEYT's Holiday Gift to the whole community and is sure to bring peace, hope and joy to even the most hard-hearted cynic. 

Because this show is sure to sell out, it will run for three weekends.

The Friday December 12 performance is a special gala benefit honoring the Tenth Anniversary year of NEYT.

Festivities begin at 6:30 with a social hour (light fare and drinks) with the performance beginning at 7:30.  Delectable desserts will be served during intermission. NEYT will also be hosting a silent auction during the evening.

Tickets for this one gala benefit performance are $40.

Regular Performances -- Fri-Sun Dec. 5-7, 13-14 and 19-21. Evening shows are Fri and Sat at 7:30 PM. Matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 PM.  Please note that there will be an additional performance on the final Sunday, Dec 21, at 7:30 pm. 

Regular pricing : Adults $13.50, Students $10.50

Thanks to our sponsors Brattleboro Savings & Loan Assn. and Fleming Oil. 

A show to help you count your blessings -- bank on it


By JON POTTER, Reformer Staff

Thursday, November 27
BRATTLEBORO -- Leave it to the New England Youth Theatre to give us exactly what we need right now -- a virtuous banker.

For its annual December show, NEYT manages to meld the timeless and the timely with "It's a Wonderful Life," drawn from the 1946 Frank Capra film about stalwart banker George Bailey and the important lesson he learns about counting his blessings one distressful Christmas Eve.

The play opens Dec. 5 at NEYT, 100 Flat St., and runs through Dec. 21.

Of course, "It's a Wonderful Life" is about finance the same way "A Streetcar Named Desire" is about public transportation -- not so much. The heart of the play is about family, home and hometown; it's about the everyday good works that good people do, often with little reward; it's about measuring wealth and success by the different standards; it's about truly giving and truly getting in return; it's about appreciating the richness of life all around you. It's the story of the miraculous transformation that occurs when George Bailey comes to learn all these lessons, just in the nick of time.

It was all those qualities that drew NEYT founder and director Stephen Stearns to turn the classic film into a play -- the version NEYT is doing is lifted almost word-for-word from the film version which starred James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed, was a modest success when it was released in 1946 and didn't earn a single Academy Award. It's
popularity grew over time, and it became an iconic holiday offering, still aired today.

Unlike many of the rest of us, Stearns came to appreciate the movie later in life.

"It's one of those movies that bypassed me for many years," he said. "People kept saying that it would be a great thing to do."

Fittingly, one of the chief people encouraging him to do the show a few years ago was George Haynes, who was then president of Brattleboro Savings & Loan. With so many people urging him on, Stearns relented and watched the film. "Suddenly, I'm just swept up in it. I'm just crying, tears streaming down my cheeks. ... This is what we call an old movie, but it's new and fresh.

"It had what I require for a holiday show. ... It had to have a miracle in it," he added. "I want to get at that knife-edge choice where the best of humanity wins out."

Now on his radar, "It's a Wonderful Life" had to wait until NEYT moved into its new theater. Stearns held off another year or so after that to plan the show properly, and it's easy to see why. With a cast of 53 and a large crew as well, this is a massive undertaking, ambitious in its scale both onstage and backstage.

Onstage, NEYT will be recreating an entire village. Offstage, the goal was to have the play shift scenes as fast as in the movie. "It has to be seamless," Stearns said.

Stearns began meeting with Production Designer Larry Lawlor a year ago, as NEYT was putting together "Guys and Dolls."

"Larry was saying, 'Stephen, you know, this is crazy," Stearns recalled.

"It's hugely complex. We're following a movie script with almost 50 scenes," Lawlor said, sitting in an NEYT rehearsal room filled with chairs, tables, plates, bottles, telephones, bank equipment, a wheelchair and hundreds of other props and set pieces.

Momentum picked up over the summer when students in a class on technical theater designed the set and built a mock-up and began work on other aspects of the project.

One of those aspects involved a little research. The NEYT production will be set in Brattleboro, not the fictional town of Bedford Falls in the movie. NEYT tech students, led by Isaiah Palmeri, went to the Brattleboro Historical Society and dug up old photographs of our town. Those photos will be projected on a screen behind the set.

With the set and tech work well under way, the time to do "It's a Wonderful Life" was right.

And then it got even more right. With the financial meltdown rattling the economy, a play with a selfless kindhearted banker at its core suddenly took on more resonance, the timeless lessons took on a timely spin.

"Did I have any way of knowing that the country would be on the skids? I couldn't have planned such a horrific thing any better," Stearns said. "We will pluck our way out of this. I think pluck is what we need."

"When we first had a read-through of the script, the whole Wall Street thing had just happened," recalled Allie Bliss, who stars as Mary Bailey. There was some discussion of putting references to the current woes into the play, but cast and crew concluded that wasn't needed.

"We don't need to add anything. It's there," Bliss said. "Things really are there about sticking together and staying with our local businesses."

That sense that this is not just a good play, but the right play at the right time, is not lost on the cast.

"It would be beautiful if the values of this show were adopted by more people," said Riley Goodemote, who plays George Bailey. "It says a lot about altruism and really honorable values. The only greedy character in this show is the villain. In this show, people don't do things for personal gain."

Ahh, yes, the villain. Mean, miserly financier Henry Potter, played with delicious vigor by Lionel Barrymore in the movie, is in the hands of Andrew Mario, a 16-year-old junior at Brattleboro Union High School.

"I like (playing a villain). When I was a kid, I watched 'Star Wars,' and I thought the bad guys were so cool," he said. "One of the things I find really interesting (about Potter). In most movies, the bad guys get their comeuppance. In this play, he doesn't.

"It says the bad guy doesn't need to get his comeuppance for the good guy (to prevail)," Mario added.

That simple fact gets at much of what makes "It's a Wonderful Life" so good. It is free from vengeance; it does not seek justice. Its mind is on other things -- the simple matter of getting all of us to appreciate the good things in our lives.

There's a telling line at the beginning of the play when two angels are discussing the fitness of the guardian angel Clarence, who will be sent down to help George in his moment of crisis.

Clarence, an angel second class, still seeking his wings, has many faults, but we are reminded "He has the faith of a child." The faith of a child is very much a central message -- and links the play with the beating hearts at NEYT's core.

"This is one of those movies that always signifies new hope for people. ... I think everyone wishes they could see the world if they weren't in it. I know I do," said Taylor Patno, a 15-year-old sophomore at BUHS who plays Clarence. "I think everybody is so stressed out and so worried about the economy and gas and health care. This is one of those movies that's like an old friend coming back.

"For two-and-a-half hours, people are really going to forget their problems. ... I kind of want it to have an old-friend feeling," Patno said.

Yet for all the warm fuzzies the show delivers, "It's a Wonderful Life" holds up because it's more than just hokum. There is real pain, real life stories of suffering and distress, real meanness. George's anguish is palpable, and it bubbles over into anger that has a real darkness to it.

And then, the miracle Stearns requires. With Clarence's help, his pain is transformed into something profoundly beautiful.

"Everyone has a big dream of going off and doing a lot of good somewhere, and then they miss the little things they do. What seems like a small, insignificant thing to George is monumental, but he misses that," Bliss said.

Until the end.

You don't have to miss it, but get your tickets now. NEYT holiday shows often sell out. In anticipation of a huge demand for tickets, NEYT has extended this run for an unprecedented three weekends -- a total of thirteen performances. Dates are December 5-7, 12-14 and 19-21, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., and an extra performance at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 21. There is a special Gala Event performance on Friday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m., for which there will be light fare before the show, starting at 6:30 p.m., and desserts and beverages at intermission and after the show. Ticket prices for the Gala Event are $40.

General ticket prices are $13.50 for adults and $10.50 for students. To purchase tickets, visit, pay by phone Monday-Friday during business hours or in person at the theater each Wednesday from 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets may also be purchased at the box office during the hour before each performance. For information, call 802-246-6398.

The NEYT cast and crew are hoping you'll forget your troubles and be entertained, but they're hoping for something more out of this production.

"If someone said that it made them see their own lives differently, that would be great," Goodemote said. 

It's a Wonderful... Play?

Two live productions put a holiday classic on stage.

Comments (0)
Thursday, December 11, 2008

A fixture of the holiday entertainment season is those perennial reruns of It's a Wonderful Life. The beloved movie has now found its way onto the stage, in not one but two quite different dramatizations. One of them fills the stage with 53 performers, and one does the whole thing with just seven. One pretty faithfully recreates the original, and one re-imagines it as an old-time radio drama.

If you've been under a rock for the last 62 years, you need to know that It's a Wonderful Life tells the irresistibly sentimental story of George Bailey, a small-town fellow who dreams of going places and doing great things, but never gets out of town. Instead, he marries a hometown girl and manages the family's savings and loan. Then, when the business is on the edge of ruin and he's on the brink of suicide, he's saved by a guardian angel who shows him all the ways he has touched people's lives. The old chestnut has renewed relevance this year, since one of its plot points revolves around home ownership and a bank failure.

Frank Capra's black-and-white classic was filmed in 1946, and that's when the radio version takes place. We're in a New York City sound studio on Christmas Eve. A group of actors, a sound-effects man and an offstage organist are poised to perform for a studio audience and a nationwide network of listeners. The six actors, scripts in hand, line up at a row of microphones. They are dressed in '40s fashions—the men in double-breasted suits and Brylcreem, the women in shoulder-padded dresses, flowered hats and Andrews Sisters hairdos.

The defining ingredient of radio drama—and one of the most intriguing elements in this stage production—is the sound effects that conjure up the action we can't see. Stacked on and around a large table on one side of the Majestic Theater's stage is a motley collection of noisemaking props: a large turning drum covered with a sheet of muslin to create a wind effect, a tin thunder sheet, a black rotary-dial telephone, a midget door.

Joe Landry's script is an abbreviated transcription of the screenplay, with added narration to cover some transitions and without a couple of the film's particularly visual sequences. Cate Damon's production at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield is the second outing for what looks to be an annual event.

The versatile cast of professionals, headed by David Mason as George, evoke the movie's indelible performances without imitating them. In true old-time radio fashion, most of the performers play multiple roles. Dick Volker is the narrator and a dozen more characters. Sandra Blaney, Margaret Reilly and Barbara McEwen (hilarious as an imperious movie star slumming in the radio medium) divvy up the women's roles. Van Farrier tops them all with 15 different voices, including a couple of times when he plays all the characters in a scene.

Tom Knightlee is wonderfully droll as the eager, nervous sound-effects man, opening and slamming doors, ringing a cash register, splashing water when George's little brother falls through the ice, donning high heels to walk down a length of sidewalk as sexy Violet Bick.

Small-Town Epic

Stephen Stearns has been waiting quite some time to stage It's a Wonderful Life at the New England Youth Theatre, which he founded 10 years ago. It just wasn't possible to fit it into the company's previous home, a little storefront on Brattleboro's Main Street. But last year, the troupe moved into an expansive new theater space that can accommodate this small-town epic with a cast of 50-plus, multiple locations and 300 costumes.

While this version sticks quite closely to the original, there's one big change. The fictional town of Bedford Falls has become the real city of Brattleboro, represented in vintage photos projected on a big screen at the rear of the stage, which lend a lovely period look to the piece.

The half-a-hundred performers range from tiny tots to 20-something alumni of the program. In two of the leads, you can detect the influence of the film's performances. Taylor Patno, as Clarence, George's guardian angel, adopts the diffident mannerisms of his model, Henry Travers. And just as we can hear Jimmy Stewart's signature drawl in David Mason's radio performance, young Riley Goodemote has the original star's lanky frame and boyish charm. But Goodemote, like Mason, recalls the original without impersonating him, and nicely captures George's gift for friendship and instinctive open-heartedness.

I'll pick just one more player out of this overflowing, energetic ensemble. I liked Allie Bliss even better than Donna Reed as George's wife, Mary. Her sweetness is less saccharine, her motherliness more natural and her worry in George's moment of crisis more convincing.

On opening night last week, things were still a little rough. The platforms that slide on and off the stage with the furniture for the various scenes didn't always work quite right, and one actor missed an entrance cue by a long, anxious minute. But the curtain speech, given by one of the alums, invited us to join into the spirit of the show, and we didn't need a second invitation. When a chair teetered on the edge of a platform, threatening to tip its occupant over the edge, almost the entire audience in unison called out to warn him.

Stephen Stearns' production basically puts the whole screenplay on stage, cutting hardly a line and changing things only when it's impossible to recreate the movie. (The cast doesn't jump into a swimming pool—they're drenched by a fire hose.) But editing the sacred text a bit would help with the running time (almost two and a half hours), and I actually liked best the moments when the production acknowledged being a stage play, like changing the sledding accident on the icy pond into a slip when jumping across a stream.

These two productions' disparity in scale and approach underlines the movie's universal appeal and the power of its simple, moving story. Both versions, in their different ways, do justice to the material without making us just want to see the original instead. And both of them managed to put a lump in my throat."

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