Review by Danny Gaisin
Disclaimer- I’ve never been a fan of Capra’s 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. Actually, same can be said about The Greatest Gift’, the story on which the movie was based. That said, staging it at this particular time of year is [almost] engraved in the U.S. Constitution (34th Amendment). The story about an average guy and how much effect he’s had on others seems syrupy treacle. Like the metaphysical butterfly causing tornadoes, or the aphorism about even the smallest pebble making a ripple; – my opinion – “Bah, Humbug!”
That said, W.E.S.T.’s talented cast and production team have made the best they can of the situation.
Under the direction of Yo Mustafa who must have a fireplace-mantle of our O.A.R. Top Ten winners, the thespians all give a full measure of effort and commitment. Even the villain of the piece, Chris Reid’s malevolent ‘Henry Potter’ gleans applause instead of a ‘boo’ or ‘hiss’ at final curtain. Somehow, Reid manages to be almost as pivotal as Joe Balaz’s “George Bailey” about whose life we learn through historical vignettes being passed on to his appointed guardian angel. It’s, (or his) ‘Clarence’ whose name has become eponymous for anyone actively seeking a promotion. In this iteration, Michael Brown bumbles through the steps he must undertake to save Balaz’s character, and thus be promoted to full angel – wings included! Brown gives his interpretation just enough naivité to seem credible and given the overly sombre atmosphere of the story, is a welcome change of pace. The vignette method lets the audience see Bailey as a kid, a teenager and then unfulfilled adult making almost saintly sacrifices or choices on behalf of ,or for, others. Mustafa’s innate talent in working with kids, is fully visible in the skills and naturalness of the very young thespians on stage. Only drawback, their diction and especially projection didn’t carry dialogue even up to our tenth row.
Balaz (the grown up one) is on stage in every scene or vignette and thus is challenged with morphing from nice guy to carrying the (local) world, to facing serious problems he seems unable to comprehend or rectify. His interactions with Reid are especially poignant. Two serious talents at work together. Linda Spence is Bailey’s girlfriend, then wife & mother of their three offspring and her on-stage role will resound with most audiences.
The support cast all contribute full measure and even the smallest of roles seem plausible. Too bad, the audience can’t actually see the old-fashioned telephone operation that is the Bailey Building & Loan office’s reception area. Maybe it can be turned slightly in future stagings.
The costumes are period correct, but given the almost prop-free stage, it is the lights and sound effects that make or set the mood. Each episodel segment is bridged by a piano interlude and unfortunately, some of these intervals are somewhat longish…no doubt part of the reason some seats were vacated post-interval.
The ending is frenetic in pace with almost too much happening in too short a time… something like computer overload. This is a diametric change from the occasionally dragging pace of the rest of the play. If one can handle yet another Christmas story, or ballet, or carol or theme; IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is at The Oakville Centre until Sunday (25th).