Theatre VCU presents It’s a Wonderful Life: a live radio play

Actors from the theatre department perform a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo courtesy of Alex Burkhart


Actors from the theatre department perform a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo courtesy of Alex Burkhart
Actors from the theatre department perform a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo courtesy of Alex Burkart

TheatreVCU brought “It’s a Wonderful Life” — one of the most iconic holiday movies of all time — to the stage as live radio play from Dec. 3-6 at the W.E. Singleton Center for Performing Arts.

The original script by Joe Landry is for five actors to play all the characters in the play.

“Theatre VCU’s production, however, is the final project of a 491: Special Topics class. Because it was a final project, the parts were divided up for eleven actors,” said director Alex Burkart, an undergraduate who instructs directing, voiceover and radio drama at VCU.

Instead of a band of five “celebrities” we also have the slightly off-center crew that exposes the working environment of the radio studio which, visually, is a lot of fun to watch.”

The cast of the Theatre VCU production includes Patrick Bello, Billy Borst, Annabelle Bradstreet, Andrew Colletti, Anne Forbes, Rachel Hindman, Riley MacIsaac, Ben Miller, DJ Powell, Sean Pugerude, Miranda Tower and TJ Vinsavich.

The film version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” first hit movie theaters in 1946 and was directed by Frank Capra. The film was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern and starred James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who wishes he had never been born only to be shown how many lives he has changed and impacted and how they would be different if he was never there.

Initially, the movie was poorly received by critics and did not fare well at the box office. It is now considered a classic holiday film thanks to multiple reruns on television since the 1970s.

Joe Landry adapted the movie into a live radio play that offers an interesting twist on the story.

“Live radio play is a style of theatre that is done with actors standing primarily at microphones using voice acting techniques and being backed up with music and foley sound effects to create both atmosphere and audible action,” Burkart said.

Radio plays were initially developed in the 1920s and within a decade they achieved widespread popularity. They were the leading international popular entertainment by the 1940s. The performance usually had no visual component and depended on dialogue, music, and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story.

The popularity of radio plays declined sharply with the invention of the television in the 1950s and it has never regained the large audiences it once had. It survives in the modern world but mostly through the internet rather than heard over terrestrial or satellite radio.

“Modeled after the popularity of radio entertainment in the ’40s and ’50s, this play is set in a radio studio during the Christmas season of 1946,” Burkart said. “(This is) also the year It’s a Wonderful Life hit movie screens.”

Interestingly, the original film was adapted for radio in 1947 at the height of radio’s popularity, and played on Lux Radio Theater. It was then broadcast on the Screen Guild Theater twice, in 1947 and 1951. James Stewart and Donna Reed, the stars of the film, reprised their roles for all three radio productions.

“As a director, this has been a really fun project to work on,” Burkart said. “The production is a perfect way to celebrate the holiday season, and delivers the important message that all of us are so important to each other’s lives.”

Burkart encourages everyone to see this and other productions by Theatre VCU in the coming semester.

“Theatre VCU shows are definitely worth checking out,” Burkart said. “The support they provide to develop the independent artists is absolutely fueling the future leaders of the theatre community.”

Article by: Adriel Velazquez, Contributing Writer

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