Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


12.10.2009

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In homage to the rapid-fire preamble of Williamston Theatre's This Wonderful Life — in which actor John Lepard traces the story arc of It's a Wonderful Life in less than a minute using sound bytes, like a gleeful parlor trick — I will attempt the same feat. Working alone, Lepard both shows and tells, plays all with distinction. Strong choices emphasize casual storytelling. Entire universe gives way to iconic staircase; twinkle-star angels, just like the movie! Labor deserving of a more daring script, yet satisfying. (How'd I do?)

First: John Lepard. The swell of one-man and one-woman productions this season should not diminish what a feat it is to energetically spin a compelling tale for seventy or eighty or ninety minutes straight. Lepard's task is to revive the classic film before the audience's eyes: in part to recreate dialogue, in part to narrate, and occasionally to provide commentary, all three of which he does with abundant sparkle and charm. The work this actor has put into the text is evident, from the consistent body language suggesting dozens of distinct individuals to the transitions between characters in mid-conversation. (Changing body and voice in an instant is no picnic in itself, to say nothing of adding a good Jimmy Stewart in heavy rotation.) A delight when he's clearly having fun, Lepard also summons a heartfelt and grave climactic scene bound to put a catch in one's throat.

The production assumes, probably correctly, that the audience has seen It's a Wonderful Life, so the mood is less presentation, more mutual revival. From the opening moments, director Tony Caselli strives to achieve an informal atmosphere. In his boldest and best move, no sound or light cue signals that the play has begun; Lepard simply walks onstage and starts talking. What might seem like an inconsequential decision was enough of a departure to catch several audience members off guard. However, the ensuing sense of rapport propelled the play along and set the tone for the recurring asides to really hit their mark.

Rather than go the literal route, the set gives only a few touchstones of Bedford Falls, which come into focus against the infinite space from which angels Joseph and Clarence emerge (and emphasize just how small George Bailey's corner of the world seems to him). Designer Bartley H. Bauer's delightful attention to detail was not lost on me — the night-sky motif extends even to the inside of the desk, a sweet reward for people who pay attention to minutiae. The addition and placement of the bridge extended the area in which Lepard was able to play, a fantastic solution for the challenges presented by the theater's ever-present pillars. Reid G. Johnson's lighting and Quintessa Gallinat's sound designs capture the essence of the starry angel characters, all executed in perfect time by stage manager Stefanie Din.

The obvious successes of the production aside, I admit to some lingering regrets about Williamston's selection of This Wonderful Life. The pressure for a theater's Christmas show to be a home run must be immense, and yet this script is so safe, so tame. In any other situation, if an acquaintance spent over an hour describing and acting out a movie I had already seen several times, I'd consider blocking his number from my phone. Luckily, the care inherent to this production and the obvious affection for the source material make it both engaging and endearing (yes, even to this skeptic). More than anything, this loving reenactment is like a homecoming. If you like the feeling you get from the movie, this experience will not disappoint.

1 Comment:

  1. Judy said...
    Sounds like John Lepard is a talented actor. And I like tradition so keep on giving me the same Christmas stories over and over again!

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