Soulpepper’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life is the perfect way to celebrate the holidays. Based on the 2003 Philip Grecian adaptation that reimagined Frank Capra’s 1946 film as a radio play set in the 1940s, actors play multiple roles and masterfully manipulate everyday items to create all the sound effects needed to bring the beautiful story to life. For those who have never seen the classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (Gregory Prest), a self-sacrificing man in need of some heavenly guidance after feeling like the world would be better if he had never been born.
Having never seen a radio play, I was impressed with each actor’s ability to seamlessly transform into different characters in the blink of an eye and I was blown away with how much work went into making each sound effect and capturing the little details that creatively bring the story to life. Who would have thought that crackling fire sounds could be made from crinkling a plastic bag on your hand while another person times their claps to mimic the breaking of wood? That key aspect of timing is a concept that could make or break any radio play production and kudos to these performers because they nailed each sound effect.
My favourite parts of this production were the commercials that really enhanced the radio play concept. The production began with the Announcer (Diego Matamoros) telling the audience the production was being broadcast live from CIBC radio and introducing a word from their sponsors which we later find out include Telus. The Telus commercial was hilarious because it featured actors making a call to heaven and delivering the slogan, “Telus Communications, no matter how far you’re trying to reach.” They also cleverly used the commercials to promote their production of Hocus Pocus and their Winter Waves free family programming.
What I found most inspiring about this production were not only the little touches that worked to drive home the radio play concept, but also the magic of the holiday season. Lorenzo Savioni did an outstanding job of bringing the 1940s to the modern Bluma Appel theatre with beautiful costumes and old-fashioned set pieces. The radio studio set was complete with old-timey microphones and more items than you could to create sound effects, but it was the sound booth at the back of the stage that captured my attention with its brightly lit Christmas tree and Christmas cards hanging on a bulletin board. The two sides of the set were framed with windows that looked blacked out until the end of the play when snow slowly started falling to create the perfect setting for George’s epiphany.
Soulpepper’s It’s a Wonderful Life is definitely worth seeing this holiday season, but I recommend watching the movie first if you’ve never seen it because the radio play can be a bit confusing to audience members meeting George Bailey for the first time since it is a condensed version of the movie and there are no costume or set changes to really solidify character and scene changes.
It’s a Wonderful Life is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre until Dec. 31. Tickets can be purchased online at soulpepper.ca.