Zuzu's Juju

A cinematic classic, adapted for the stage, still packs a punch by reveling in the Christmas spirit

Dec 19, 2001 at 4:00 am
It was early in Act 2, as Mary and George Bailey were presenting gifts of bread and salt to a new low-income homeowner in Bailey Park, that I got to thinking about Jimmy Carter.

In June 1987, I spent some time with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter when they came to New York City to promote a book they had co-authored. Between interviews, the former president and first lady visited a once-desolate Lower East Side apartment building that they (along with 4,000 other Habitat for Humanity volunteers) had helped restore. Now it was a handsome dwelling that housed 19 families. As Rosalyn held the bread and salt, her altruistic husband formally dedicated the reopened structure.

Last week, as I sat watching this musical adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life, it occurred to me that Jimmy Carter is yet another example of life imitating art. He is George Bailey. After having endured the public humiliation of being voted out of the White House, in recent years Carter has been given the great gift of coming to realize how widely admired he is and how many lives he has touched.

America's love affair with It's a Wonderful Life actually germinated with another president. In 1938, while shaving on the morning of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, author Philip Van Doren Stern began to imagine how different the world might have been had Lincoln never lived. By extension, an idea for a short story came to him in which an ordinary man wished he had never been born and then was allowed to see how altered the world would be without his presence.

To make a long story about a short story not so long, Stern wrote "The Greatest Gift" in 1943. In that original version, George Bailey was named George Pratt, and the (unnamed) wish-fulfilling angel was a Fuller Brush man. For the 1947 movie adaptation, director Frank Capra filled in George's life, but Stern's underlying spine remained intact.

That spine also remains intact in this musical stage adaptation. Though this version is more a pastiche of the film's most popular scenes than a faithful rendering of the entire plot, that isn't necessarily a bad thing for those of us who overdosed on the Capra movie long ago. Author James W. Rodgers and composer John Higgins have consigned the entire story to a unit set. If, at times, the viewer feels he's watching an adaptation of Our Town rather than It's a Wonderful Life, that's not so bad, either: George and Mary in Bedford Falls are only one step removed from George and Emily in Grover's Corners. Both stories are innately American classics that attempt to fathom the mystery of life after death.

Characters & Company's imperative is to cast young. When a musical calls for youthful performers (Babes in Arms, Smile), the results can be refreshing. But when the show requires adults, that same approach can be problematic. In production after production, Matthew Blind has proven himself a gifted young performer, and at times he's persuasive here, too. But he will be a more textured, nuanced George Bailey in years to come. The same holds true for Jamie Anderson as Mary, although she has fun with two of the show's perkiest tunes, "Sliver of a Moon" and "Suddenly!" Among the adults, director Mark D. Vaughan is ideally cast as Clarence, the angel.

Clarence delivers the most memorable line: "Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole." That's the resonant spine of It's a Wonderful Life in whatever form we find it -- short story, movie, stage musical. For once, the magic lies in the message, not the medium.