The Christmas classic comes to life as a play within a play

There’s nothing that gets you in the holiday spirit more than the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. Good will, angels, the jingling of bells — it’s all there. My family usually watches the movie together around the holiday season, but this year we got the chance to experience the story in a completely different way.

From December 9-30, the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre is performing It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. The play was written in 1996 by playwright Joe Landry, who created it as a favor to a friend interested in a stage version of the film for her high school class. The Backstage production, directed by Mark Ragan (who also acts in the play), is the classic story you know and love — told as a live radio play from the 1940s. Complete with an “Applause” sign, this production works to make you feel as though you are a part of a live studio audience. The play is fun, polished, and the only one I’ve seen that started right on time!

Read the OnStage Colorado preview about the Backstage Theatre production

The challenge of performing a radio play on stage is to make it visually stimulating, and I think this is something the production does particularly well. The story is pulled through the actors’ transatlantic accents into the physical world of costumes and props: When Mary orders ice cream, her voice actor sits down and actually eats some. When Uncle Billy’s drunk, his voice actor sips from a flask. Constant costume changes bring visual gags into play. And although they’re speaking into microphones, the actors still act toward each other. That and some clever staging works to make this production flow like any other play. But by far the best way they make a radio show fun to watch is through the foley artist. Foley artists are responsible for making all the sound effects for a movie or radio play: footsteps, door slams, splashes, etc. In It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, young Riley Goossen is constantly searching among a heap of props and instruments to make a bunch of sounds that work to make the play both visually and aurally stimulating.

The frontman Jacob Dresch delivers the full emotional range of George Bailey; his drive and optimism descend into despair and anger, which turn to confusion and, finally, gratitude. All under two hours! He also boasts a strong bass voice which fills the intimate theater. But Dresch is just one part of a strong cast. Seth Palmer Harris, who plays Clarence, has a bag full of voices which lets him switch seamlessly between different characters of all ages. And Lauren Dennis, who plays a host of characters including George’s mother, is the production’s comic relief with her entertaining faces and body language.

At the end of the play you are showered by a snow-making machine that truly brings you into the magic experienced by George Bailey, his friends, and his family. Walking out of the theater with my own family, we were met with more snow, real this time. As I hurried back to the warmth of our car among the twinkling lights of Breckenridge, I swear I heard bells ringing in the distance.