Review: The Gamm’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”

by | Dec 11, 2019

Above, from left to right: Madeleine Lambert (Mary Hatch, Rose Bailey), Jeff Church (Harry Bailey, Ernie Bishop/Others), Lynsey Ford (Violet Bick/Janie Bailey/Others), Fred Sullivan, Jr. (Clarence, Mr. Potter), and Tony Estrella (George Bailey).

By Noelle Salisbury

I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t attend the preview of It’s a Wonderful Life this past weekend. ‘Tis the season for sniffles and coughs, and I’d been nursing a week-long cold. But I rallied and was pleasantly surprised by a scene that starkly contrasted how I was feeling. The terrific set of It’s a Wonderful Life – designed by Michael McGarty, it’s The Gamm’s most vibrant this season – presents a stimulating environment before the play even begins. Cast members in 1940s’ costumes roam the aisles with warm beverages, encouraging the audience to sing carols or leave a message to a loved one on festive little slips of paper. With this atmosphere, the launch of the play, 90 minutes without an intermission, flows naturally. The “live radio play” format gives announcements, even live advertisements, a charming, playful flare. Every aspect of the show works (and works well!) because of the radio structure. 

From left to right: Emily Turtle (Announcer/Zuzu Bailey), Lynsey Ford (Violet Bick/Janie Bailey/Others), and Jeff Church (Harry Bailey, Ernie Bishop/Others).

Most of these aspects remain constant throughout the show. The set does not change, the actors wear the same costumes the entire show, and blocking is minimal. The stage, decked with holiday trinkets, recreates a 1940s recording studio, down to the standing microphones and “Applause” signs (which do, indeed, light up). The stage manager is cleverly tucked behind a glass panel below an “On Air” sign and the foley artist (i.e. sound effects guy) is stage right with a table full of fun doodads. D.J. Potter, who produces the sound effects live, does an excellent job of keeping the audience engaged in the story. Emily Turtle, announcer and pianist, does a similarly excellent job at her piano by adding tunes to this classic tale. The rest of the cast, starring artistic director Tony Estrella, captivate the crowd with their clear characterizations. Fred Sullivan Jr. is a particular stand out, playing the opposing roles of Clarence and Henry F. Potter. Each is so realized as a character that the audience is never confused. The viewer could almost close their eyes and listen to the cast’s vocal performances based on the actors’ expressive voices.

Foley artist DJ Potter

Although I was not initially prepared for It’s a Wonderful Life, this heartwarming show perfect for all ages revved up my holiday spirit. Those familiar with the movie will find this faithful (yet inventive) radio adaptation hits just the right sentimental chord while youngsters can enjoy the story for the first time through the lens of director Damon Kiely. Nothing instills the nostalgia of the holiday season quite like a classic, and this show is the perfect outing for a cold winter’s night.

It’s a Wonderful Life runs until Dec. 22 at The Gamm Theatre in Warwick. Find more information at https://www.gammtheatre.org/awonderfullife

Noelle Salisbury, a senior at East Greenwich High School, reviews theater for EG News.


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