Friday, December 16, 2011

Arts in Motion's 'Life' is heartwarming theater

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has been a holiday film classic for decades. For some the holidays aren’t complete without watching Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the man who doesn’t realize how significant his life truly is. But Arts in Motion is offering the chance to see a different version of this familiar favorite.

This play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” adapted from the film by playwright James W. Rogers, is being performed at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine Saturday, Dec. 17, at 1, 4 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 18, at 1 and 4 p.m.

Directed by Mary Bastoni-Rebmann, the production is an impressive technical achievement. It snows on that stage and it is pretty magical to see. There is some wonderful period costumes by Patty Hibbert. The set designed by Tom Rebmann effectively evokes the small-town quality of Bedford Falls. Many set pieces are wheeled in when necessary, the best being the bridge in which George (John Paiva) is contemplating his suicide.

Paiva has a challenging role not just because he’s the lead, but because Jimmy Stewart’s performance is so iconic and ingrained in people’s minds. The temptation is to do an impersonation, but then what’s the point in watching the new version?

Paiva doesn’t merely imitate, which is good, but there’s something ever so slightly off about his performance and it is hard to pinpoint. Stewart has a naturalness to his performance that Paiva doesn’t quite have. He isn’t bad. He does have a strong stage presence and likability and in isolated moments he is solid.

The “You want the moon?” scene with Julie Lanoie as Mary Hatch, George’s love interest, is cute and sweet. Outside of the heartwarming conclusion, the most emotionally powerful and satisfying scene is when George and Mary decide to use their own money to keep the Building and Loan open during a low point in The Depression.

This is a large cast full of well-known characters like Clarence the angel (Craig Holden), Uncle Billy (Marshall Allen) and mean old Mr. Potter (Gino Funicella). Allen does nice work as the absent-minded Billy. Funicella has moments of menace as Potter, but is perhaps a bit too hammy. Holden was an obvious choice for Clarence, but sometimes typecasting works well.

It is in the second act of the show that we get the often parodied plot device of George getting to see what the world would be like if he was never born. During these scenes the show is building emotional energy, but then the dramatic thrust is brought to a halt with a scene involving carolers. The scene runs long, but is being tweaked before the show’s opening Saturday.

The show ends brightly. The conclusion to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” much like “A Christmas Carol,” is full of such warmth and positivity that only the most bitter and cynical person would not be moved by it. In spite of myself, I felt some tears well up as George learned he truly does have a wonderful life.

For more information call the box office at (207) 935-9232 or visit

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