It’s A Wonderful Life at the Bijou

The Vagabond Theatre Company (VTC) invites people to celebrate the Christmas season the way folks did in yesteryear, with the staging of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show at Bridgeport’s historic Bijou Theatre running Dec. 1-2.

A returning favorite, the show was adapted by Fairfield’s own Joe Landry, premiering at the Stamford Center for the Arts in 1996. Since then, it has been widely produced around the country.

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show takes a unique look at the beloved holiday tale. As one would expect, the story follows George Bailey and the granting of his bleak and desperate Christmas wish by his guardian angel — only in this version, it’s done at the WBFR radio studios on Christmas Eve 1946.

Last year, John Smith and Tanya Feduik-Smith, VTC’s co-artistic directors, were looking to return the troupe to its old home at the Bijou Theater and met with Gary Peterson, Bijou’s new general manager, about doing some sort of show.

“He was really interested in doing a Christmas show,” Feduik-Smith said. “We performed this last December and he seemed really keen on doing it as a regular holiday tradition, so we’re back.”

In the production, a handful of actors broadcast the action in front of microphones, each playing dozens of characters, accompanied on stage by a live sound effects artist — just the way old-time radio shows were done back in the day.

“The radio-show format is so different. It’s easy on a cast, especially around the holidays because there’s no memorization involved because they will have scripts on stage like a regular old-fashioned radio show and there’s a lot of improv,” said Feduik-Smith, who is directing this year’s show. “The cast really seems to love it and it’s so much fun.”

Smith added that the fact that it’s set in the 1940s, it fits in wonderfully with the Bijou’s art deco style, so the theater itself is just the perfect setting.

“It’s such a great concept,” he said. “It attracts the old-timers who used to listen to radio shows and the serials, and it’s a cool, new thing for young kids to check out.”

The younger generations particularly are fascinated by the sound effects that are created right on the stage since many who saw the production last year admitted that they hadn’t seen something like that before.

In talking with different audience members last year — including many who had seen this show done elsewhere — Feduik-Smith learned quite a bit that she has used to improve the show in its second year. She also wanted to continue what Smith had done as director of the show last time.

“It’s a lot of staged reading. The actors that were on stage last year made an entire storyline behind what was going on and it was fascinating to watch and absolutely hilarious,” she said. “It was the cast of this radio play, at work on Christmas Eve. They were doing this play but they were basically at their Christmas party.”

Smith noted that it was important not to take things too seriously.

“The story itself in the film aspect of it is where the seriousness comes in, but the back end of it is where the fun comes in,” he said. “It’s a Wonderful Life is not a happy, feel-good story all the way through. It’s got a little bit of darkness to it and a little social commentary. That comes through when they are at the mics, but the background is a way to let the audience know it’s still a fun Christmas party.”

The cast for this year’s performance consists of Tim Brandt, Betzabeth Castro, Danielle Gervais, Elayne Gordon, Rich Mancini, CJ Nolan, Justin Puzzio, Tom Torpey, Richard Warren, Michael Wright and Mat Young.

“A couple of people are returning but we also held auditions to fill out the cast,” Feduik-Smith said.

The theater is set up as an old radio studio with old-fashioned working mics, the folly equipment on the side of the stage for the sound effects and the actors immersing with the audience as they are walking in.

“We try to make the audience feel welcome, like they are going to a company’s Christmas party,” Feduik-Smith said. “There’s encouragement from the stage for the audience to be part of it. Their laughter, their applause, their gasps … that should all be part of the show. It makes you feel like you are transported back to this time and place.”

Smith’s relationship with the play goes back more than 20 years, working with Landry on the second-ever performance in Stamford. In that production, Landry played Clarence and Smith played Harry.

“I had such a blast working on the show because of the unique concept,” he said. “He and I reconnected a few years ago so when Gary pitched the idea that he wanted a Christmas show, this was literally the first thing I thought of.”

The draw of a show like this is in the history of It’s a Wonderful Life the movie.

“Everyone just latches on to it. It’s always running on Christmas and everyone loves it,” Smith said. “Aside from the fact that it’s an amazing film, there’s some conversations and takeaways that can be had for the family. It has some great lessons that need to be interpreted through a parent to a child.”

The staged production is family-friendly and VTC tries to keep it as upbeat as possible with music, decorations and costumes.

“We know kids have a short attention span, so we keep it really lively,” Feduik-Smith said. “It’s a good family event and there are no ghosts in this one so there’s no worry about that. It’s a low-key, no-pressure holiday event that is good for all ages.”

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show will also play at the Stony Creek Museum in association with the Legacy Theatre in Branford on Dec. 14 and 15.

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