By Kevin Zimmerman
At the end of the calendar year, smaller theater companies face some fierce competition from “The Nutcracker,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and Mr. Dickens’ story of a miserly old man and a trio of ghosts.
Often the little guys skip the season and turn their attention to a late winter or early spring production.
Long Island City’s Variations Theatre Group has bucked the trend of going dark around the holidays, and has opted to mount a show based on one of the most beloved — and equally despised — Christmas movies of all time.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” which opened last week and runs through Dec. 21 at the Chain Theatre, brings the story of everyman George Bailey to life in front of a live audience.
The show, written by Joe Landry, is presented as a radio play being broadcast from coast to coast on Christmas Eve.
Variations has opted to set its production in the 1940s, when you would not need to explain to anyone what a radio play was, and to cast seven actors to voice all of the roles, as well as provide the sound effects to accompany the performance.
As the audience enters the Chain’s black box theater, Christmas music pours out of speakers around the room. Although the show is supposed to take place in the ’40s, the songs include seasonal recordings from the past 70 years, such as Elvis’ “Blue Christmas.”
The sparse set is little more than seven wooden chairs, two radio microphones and the folio table littered with shoes, a large metal pail filled with water, a telephone and other gadgets used to create sounds as diverse as chirping crickets and car horns.
Each of the supporting actors has a turn at the folio table serving as the sound engineer of the program. Some of the more creative bits in the evening include an actor breaking a chunk of Styrofoam before dunking it into the water — which represents Harry Bailey’s near-tragic fall through thin ice — to the turning of a wooden box filled with pieces of broken glass to simulate the noise that George and Mary create when throwing rocks at an abandoned house’s windows.
Although the cast is uniformly good — each one is playing an actor portraying a character — there are definitely a couple of standouts.
Unlike most plays, where movement and facial cues help the actor create a character who moves the story along, here the only tool in the cast’s arsenal is their voices.
Using a nasally, almost whiny singsong patter, Mark A. Keeton leaves no doubt that Henry Potter is an unhappy — or as George says at one point —“frustrated old man.”
Keeton’s excellent work is carried over to his bits as a radio announcer presenting live commercials for hair tonic and soap. He makes each one extremely funny because he plays it oh, so straight.
But the real star may be the man of a 1,000 voices Nick Fondulis.
Fondulis takes on the roles of Clarence, the apprentice angel, Bert the cop, Mr. Martini and Uncle Billy Bailey, among others.
He imbues each of these man with a distinct voice and character.
Granted Mr. Martini skirts awfully close to stereotypical Italian immigrant speech and we’re not sure if Bert was meant to sound like Jimmy Stewart on purpose, but you’ll forgive all that when you hear his Uncle Billy thumbing his nose at Potter, or stating matter-of-factly that he is no good for anybody after he nearly destroys the business.
No doubt you’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” dozens of times throughout the years, but probably not like this.
The cast and director Greg Cicchino are able to take a story that everyone knows and provide it with a fresh retelling that will find even the most cynical person tearing up when George shouts “I want to live again, Clarence. Please let me live again.”
It’s the Christmas present you’ll want to unwrap first.
If you Go
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”
When: Through Dec. 21
Where: Chain Theatre, 21-28 45th Road, Long Island City
Contact: (646) 580-6003
Cost: $18/adults, $15/students and LIC residents, $9/children
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 260–4541.