Review: 'A Wonderful Life The Musical' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘A Wonderful Life The Musical’ opened in September at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, but press opening was this week. I attended soon after on a not particularly well-attended Friday evening. 

Bedford Falls comes alive in this Goodspeed premiere of the tale of finding hope in your own hometown. In this tuneful re-imaging of the classic film with “It’s” at the beginning of the title, a would-be angel comes to the rescue of desperate banker George Bailey on Christmas Eve. It reminds us that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

I have written before that the movie is not one of my favorites, but I was heartened by the fact that the music for this version was written by Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo. The late composer wrote over 1,000 songs for the venerable children’s show. Musical numbers would add value and make the piece a little happier, I thought. The book being written by the Tony-winning co-creator of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Sheldon Harnick also raised my hopes. 

"Christmas Gifts" The cast of 'A Wonderful Life' Photo by Diane Sobolewski

‘A Wonderful Life’ was billed as heartwarming, and in a few parts I guess it was. Family-friendly for sure, with a few young actors featured in only the second act. Director Michael Perlman and his team were going for a Norman Rockwell look to the production and in parts it definitely gave off that vibe, especially in the truly wonderful period costumes by Jennifer Caprio, wigs and hair by Mark Adam Rampmeyer and the magical set designed by Brian Prather. 

There were plenty of scenes to move along the well-known action and some were helped by the addition of the musical numbers. I felt that the songs were uneven at best, with only maybe the title song being memorable. There was some good choreography to fit the little Goodspeed stage by Parker Esse for the Charleston number and some wardrobe tricks for Mary during the fantasy “First Class All the Way.” The rest, despite the best efforts of the talented cast, just felt not so wonderful. Some changes were made to the second act according to an insert in the program that were hopefully for the better.

Duke Lafoon played George with sincerity but seemed a bit disconnected from the other actors at times; he did show off his wonderful singing voice in a few numbers. Kirsten Scott (Jenny Hill in Broadway’s ‘Big Fish’) looked the part of Mary and made the most of an underwhelming role. Logan James Hall played the role of George’s brother Harry. 

George McDaniel played angel Matthew, Tom, Mr. Martini and Bob Hepner and Frank Vlastnik was pretty cute as the angel-to-be Clarence. 

Broadway veteran Ed Dixon played the evil Mr. Potter quite well and Josh Franklin played the equally unlikable Sam Wainwright. Berthe B. Austin played both the Bailey matriarch and Mrs. Martini. Ryan G. Dunkin played Ernie and Kevin C. Loomis played Burt (in a Sesame Street homage?) Michael Medeiros was believable as the hapless Uncle Billy. 

The three local actors chosen to play the Bailey children include the talented Ben Stone-Zelman as Tommy and sisters Riley and Ella Briggs of East Hampton as Beth and Zuzu (and who names their child Zuzu?) I remembered Young Ben who has appeared at Hartford Stage in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and at Landmark Community Theatre in ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’ All the ensemble members gave it their all. 

‘A Wonderful Life’ runs at Goodspeed Musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 29, 2015.