Lead actors make magic in TheatreVirginia's "A Wonderful Life." 

Movie Classic a Stage Success

Of course, it isn't fair to compare TheatreVirginia's production of "A Wonderful Life" to the classic Frank Capra film on which it is based. The staged version is a musical, after all, with several scenes sung instead of spoken. It's live theater, not celluloid, with the vibrancy and immediacy of the stage, but also the limitations. Still, you can't help but ask the question: "Is it as good as the movie?" The simple answer is "yes." Thanks to some stirring performances by its lead actors and the appealing direction by William Wesbrooks, this "Life" makes you feel as warm and cheerful as a cup of hot cider on a frosty winter day. Some of the movie's depth and subtlety are sacrificed in the stage adaptation, but all the familiar high points are hit - and often enhanced - in TVa's musical treatment. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you probably know the basics of the plotline. George Bailey (Duke Lafoon) is an energetic young man itching to explore the world. But he is thwarted in his every attempt to leave the little town of Bedford Falls after he takes over his father's business. He marries his hometown sweetheart, Mary (Lauren Hathaway), and toils away in frustration for years until a tragic mistake sends him begging to his arch nemesis, Mr. Potter (Daryl Clark Phillips), for help. Potter mocks him and turns him away. In his desperation, Bailey totters on the edge of suicide before a heavenly helper Clara (Catherine Shaffner) shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. While the movie has a general sense of amiable good humor, the play focuses most of its comic attention on Clara, the inept and ambitious angel. The role presents fertile ground for harvesting loads of laughs, particularly as realized by a gifted comedienne like Shaffner. In fact, Clara would overshadow the other main characters if not for the compelling work of Lafoon and Hathaway. Lafoon easily steps out from under any shadow Jimmy Stewart may cast. His George Bailey is familiar - eager, honest, affable with occasional flashes of temper - but also wholly original. The stage adaptation fleshes out the character of Mary Bailey, and Hathaway takes full advantage. She is given no fewer than three songs to explain her motivations, and she throws herself into each one, most touchingly in "I Couldn't Be with Anyone But You." It's a good thing that such accomplished actors are delivering the songs because much of composer Joe Raposo's music is midtempo mush, the worst being the highly forgettable title song. Only late in the play, with the clipped rhythms and multiple meanings in "Precious Little," do Raposo and lyricist Sheldon Harnick really hit their stride. Director Wesbrooks does well with what he is given, though, seamlessly mixing heaven and earth and the past and the future with his often-inventive staging (credit scenic designer Michael Schweikerdt with a big assist, also). While not exactly new and improved, this "Wonderful Life" is different and delightful, a fine holiday helping of wholesome

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