“A Wonderful Life”
Goodspeed Opera House

Goodspeed Opera House is currently offering a classy production of “A Wonderful Life,” the charming and touching musical based on the classic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Written by Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo (music), this musical was first staged professionally in 1991 and has received various regional theatre productions since then, without ever quite making it to either a Broadway or an Off-Broadway run. I’m sure that there is hope that this Goodspeed Opera House staging will be the production that will finally get this show to New York. (It should be noted there was a one night only Actor’s Fund concert presentation of “A Wonderful Life” at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in 2005).

Finally getting the chance to see the show, “A Wonderful Life” does indeed have its pleasures, including tuneful songs and fine performances, and I’m happy to report that it does elicit the requisite tears at the conclusion. And if the show takes a little time to find its footing, once it hits its stride, this musical proves to be extremely enjoyable. With an impressive performance by Duke LaFoon in the James Stewart role of George Bailey, “A Wonderful Life” at the Goodspeed Opera House manages to earn its wings, just as surely as the musical’s guardian angel Clarence spends the show trying to do.

As noted, it takes “A Wonderful Life” a little while to get out of the shadow of the hugely popular film it is based on. The first few songs are pleasant, and the show certainly looks attractive, but, for me, the moment that this musical truly takes hold is in an unusual duet for George Bailey and his lady love Mary Hatch (the delightful Kirsten Scott). The song, entitled “Good Night,” is a kind of angry number for the two leads that eventually develops into the moment that these characters finally fall in love. An impressive achievement for Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo, the song “Good Night” is followed by a sweet solo for Mary called “Not What I Expected.” From then on, the musical becomes completely transporting and truly finds its own identity separate from the film.

One of the nicest things about “A Wonderful Life” is that the performances of the lead characters are all pretty terrific. Bethe B. Austin is a joy as George Bailey’s mother, Milly, and Michael Medeirors is quite a touching figure as George’s Uncle Billy. There is also impressive work by Josh Franklin as Sam, Kevin C. Loomis as Bert, and Logan James Hall as Harry. And, as mentioned, George’s wife Mary is portrayed by the lovely Kirsten Scott, who possesses a wonderful singing voice. Finally, the excellent Ed Dixon is the ideal heavy as Henry Potter.

Still, it is the characters of George and Clarence that truly capture one’s heart. As Clarence, Frank Vlastnik is very endearing as the guardian angel who wants to earn his wings, and his final moments are deeply moving. As George Bailey, Duke LaFoon is so good that he almost makes one forget James Stewart. This character gets the majority of the songs and Duke LaFoon is an accomplished singer and actor and he delivers his big second act solo, “Precious Little,” which begins as a lullaby to his daughter and then develops into a powerful aria, sensationally.

“A Wonderful Life” at the Goodspeed Opera House proves to be a pleasurable musical that can stand proudly beside the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While not perfect, the musical is still incredibly moving by the conclusion and I saw more than a few people wiping away tears as they were leaving the show. Whether this production at the Goodspeed Opera House will be the one to finally earn “A Wonderful Life” a Broadway run is still uncertain. But, as a warm and tuneful evening of theatre on an Autumn night, “A Wonderful Life” at the Goodspeed Opera House proves to be just the ticket.

“A Wonderful Life” continues performances at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through November 29, 2015. For tickets, please visit http://www.goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.

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