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Cabaret's holiday show: It's a wonderful play

Few things warm the holiday spirit like Frank Capra's 1946 classic film, “It's a Wonderful Life.” Add to that the nostalgic charm of old-timey live radio broadcasts and theater audiences are in for a treat.

The Oregon Cabaret Theatre's production of “It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is written by Joe Landry, with book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Joe Raposo. The play is a funny, warm-hearted tribute to the Christmas classic and the golden age of radio, staged as a 1940s live radio broadcast in front of a studio audience. Just five actors play dozens of characters in this play-within-a-play.

Directed by OCT's artistic director, Valerie Rachelle, the show recreates the early days of radio, with a simple set of of vintage furniture and sound-effect props. It's a kick to see the actors multitask, playing multiple roles while also producing all the sound effects. The sound of breaking glass is made by an actor hitting a bunch of keys on a hook, thunder is a shaken sheet of metal. Even the “studio” audience has a role in the broadcast, taking our cues from an “applause” sign.

The radio show story doesn't deviate much from the film. Kind-hearted George Bailey has grown up in Bedford Falls, a sweet small town. Although in his youth he had great plans to attend college and travel the world, unfortunate circumstances and his own sense of responsibility keep him at home to run the family business. Nevertheless, the plucky George marries, has a family and offers kindness and friendship to locals in need.

When the accidental loss of $8,000 threatens to ruin George, the family business and leave the town in the hands of the rich and villainous Mr. Potter, he contemplates suicide. Fortunately, Clarence, George's guardian angel, steps in to save George and show him what Bedford Falls and the people he loves would be like without him. It's all bad, of course. George, with a new appreciation of his life, his loved ones and Bedford Falls, returns home to find that angels come in many forms as his friends and family lend a helping hand to save him and the town.

The actors play radio actors playing characters, and they are a delight. Scott Ford is Freddie Filmore, who plays the announcer and Mr. Potter, among many others. He's a real standout, switching characters at lightning speed as he navigates a blustery argument between two characters he is playing before flipping into the smooth, relaxed voice of the radio announcer. Carlos Lopez endearingly channels Jimmy Stewart as Jake Laurents, the actor who plays George Bailey. Alyssa Birrer is perky Sally Applewhite, who plays George's wife, Mary. John Stadelman is the cheeky Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, as well as Clarence, Mr. Martini and others. Heather Lundstedt is sassy Lana Sherwood, who plays Violet, Rose Bailey and others.

The set, designed by Craig Hudson, and the costumes by Kerri Lea Robbins work perfectly together to create a believable '40s-era radio studio scene.

It's easy to get caught up in both the magic of live performance and the touching story of “It's a Wonderful Life.” Interludes of music and funny commercial jingles for hair tonic and toilet soap make for a charming, old-fashioned radio experience and goofy fun.

"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" runs through Dec. 31 at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, 241 Hargadine St., Ashland. Curtain is at 8 p.m., 1 p.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees. Tickets cost $33 or $38. For tickets and dinner reservations, call 541-488-2902 or visit TheOregonCabaret.com.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

Left to right: John Stadelman, Alyssa Birrer, Scott Ford, Heather Lundstedt and Carlos Lopez appear in Oregon Cabaret Theatre's 'It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show.' Photo courtesy of Christopher Briscoe