This December, It's a Wonderful Life, is sure to be everywhere. NBC is airing it three separate times. And The Colonial Theatre puts it on the big screen December 17-24.
Then there's the December 2-18 musical version presented by the cast at Steel River Playhouse.
But perhaps the most unusual presentation - retitled This Wonderful Life - is being tackled by Act II Playhouse in Ambler. It runs December 6-24.
THE PLAYHOUSE IN ITS MARQUEE LIT GLORY
In the title role of George is locally renowned actor Tony Braithwaite. Playing the angel in search of a pair of wings is... locally renowned actor Tony Braithwaite. And starring as the crotchety, villainous Mr. Potter is... locally renowned actor Tony Braithwaite.
In fact, Braithwaite is playing every role, including the luminescent Mary Bailey and little Zuzu Bailey ("Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.").
We spoke about the challenges of such an undertaking.
"The cast party is going to be tough," Braithwaite cracked.
SNEAK PEEK OF THE CAST PARTY
This Wonderful Life is something of a shorthand version of the 1946 Frank Capra movie. It contains all the details of a small-town dreamer who, one despondent Christmas Eve, wonders what the world would be like without him. But it's told with a framing device that makes some of the elements of the movie easier to stage.
"I am essentially starting out playing Tony," Braithwaite explains. "I say to the audience, ‘Don't you love It's a Wonderful Life? I love it so much, I'm going to do the whole movie for you now.'"
Pulling it all off, according to Braithwaite, involves a little skill with monologues, an ear for celebrity impressions and a bit of schizophrenia.
"Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore have a conversation with each other, and I have to obviously play both parts," he says. "In playing everybody in the film at one point or another, some of the voices are more iconic than others. Obviously, Jimmy Stewart is super-iconic. And Lionel Barrymore.
"But with Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Bailey, I have a little more leeway. And as for Mary, I'm never going to accurately recreate her voice. So I just settle on something low-key and workable."
The set is flexible and cleverly adaptive to the demands of the storyline. A sign reading "You Are Now in Bedford Falls" receives a quick overlay ("Pottersville") for the alternate-universe story. Several settings employ the audience's imagination, such as the stools that stand in for a retracting gym floor over a swimming pool.
A LITTLE IMAGINATION AND A LOT OF FUN HERE AT ACT II
Braithwaite is a big fan of the film, a requirement that the authors of this version insisted on.
He cites the following: "In the notes on the performance, it says, ‘The most important thing is for the actor to have a love of the movie. He is the driving force, and his love of the movie is what makes this an event.'
"So you gotta love it to do it," Braithwaite says. "And I do."
He explains his admiration further. "I connect to the everyman aspect of the story. But I also appreciate George Bailey's ‘what-if.'
"We all have a what-if. Even if it's just a spouse or career or whatever. And we all at one point in our life would be curious to see what life would be like if we had never been around. It's a great, great conceit that I think everybody relates to.
"George can't imagine the possibility that these people who he's helped would actually be willing to help him back. He just doesn't think that's the way it would work.
"So the fact that people shower him with that kind of unconditional love at the end is ultimately what makes every human being cry. To know we are loved.
FEEL THE LOVE WITH TONY (AND CAST!) THIS DECEMBER
"And that love is shown more in deeds than in words. The ending would be totally different if the people of Bedford Falls just said, ‘Hey, I feel bad that you're in a tough spot, George. I'm not going to give you any money, but I'm with you.'"
"No," Braithwaite concludes, breaking into a huge smile. "They're like, "Hey! I bust-a the juke-a-box for you!"
Despite the fact This Wonderful Life reconfigures the familiar story somewhat, it is sure to resonate at holiday time and beyond.
When audiences leave the theater in small-town Ambler and wander by the shops and storefronts, they may notice threads of Christmas music being piped in.
And who knows?
Should that music be joined by a peal of bells from the churches on either side of Butler Avenue, it may just be the sound of an angel earning wings.