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This holiday season, the iconic story of George Bailey and his guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, comes to the Arkansas Rep's Main Stage — with a twist. The theater delivers “It's a Wonderful Life” in the style of a 1940s radio play, with advertisements from the era to boot.
In the 1940s, radio versions of feature films were a common method of cross-promotion. Radio actors arguably had it harder than those working on the original film. In “It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” five actors play more than 60 roles and do sound effects as well. (The Rep developed more than 50 sound effects for the production, using both contemporary and '40s era technology.)
“There's constant motion on the stage,” said Amy Hutchins, who plays the radio actress playing Mary Bailey, George's wife. “When you listen to it, it sounds simply wonderful. Bob Hupp, our director, has been closing his eyes during rehearsals so that he can tell whether or not the show actually sounds like a radio show.”
The show will be piped into the Rep's lobby; viewers who must leave their seats during the production won't miss a moment. (There's no intermission.)
Larry Daggett, who plays several roles, including piano player and radio announcer, said nothing in the production is pre-recorded. “We had to learn how to manipulate all these props to get the exact right sound. The props department really outdid themselves on this one.”
In addition to coming up with the right materials to create sound effects, the props department also did an impressive job on the production's set. Arranged to look like a mid-century radio studio, the set is done in high Art Deco style and painted in jewel-tone blues. The theater itself will be decked out in Christmas decorations, in an attempt to emulate the effect of New York City's Rockefeller Center in full holiday garb.
The production is set on Christmas Eve in New York. Before the radio play begins, the actors start by “warming up” the audience with a 10-minute improvisation intended to show the audience how radio actors of the era worked with a live audience.
“It's intended to give a history of the characters and show how the radio actors might have established a working relationship. We hope that people don't just arrive at 7,” said Hupp, “otherwise they will miss the introduction to the show.”
Because this is the last production prior to the Rep's scheduled remodel, audience members will be allowed to bring food and drink into the theatre during the production. The Rep will provide cookies and hot chocolate at its usual concession areas.
Director Bob Hupp will give a pre-show talk at 6:45 p.m. before the 7 p.m. curtain of “It's a Wonderful Life” on Dec. 3 and 4. The production continues through Dec. 28; performances are 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 23 and 2 p.m. Dec. 27. There will be a special Christmas Day production at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $40.