Photo by David Cooper
It opens with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the credits start to roll on the screen covering the stage. Old time credits, like a black-and-white movie from the 30s. The music rolls with gentle ease that belies how incredibly difficult the piece is to play, switching from regular to obscure time signatures, with fast piano work and graceful glides to notes that don’t normally go together but, under Gershwin’s pen, they not only fit, they glide us into the mood.
The orchestra seems flawless, so utterly professional. The cello unobtrusively adds warm caramel tones. The music, both instrumental and sung, is pitch-perfect and on the mark. The actors sing and the orchestra plays Nico Rhodes’ arrangements and orchestrations of old Broadway and film tunes, under the direction of Angus Kellett, who also tickled the ivories.
One surprise, when hearing all the verses of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” was the dour verse full of despair and disillusionment that rings true even today. The last verse, with realistic hope, also strikes home. These are not all just fluff tunes to dance to; they have a message. Some of the songs are obscure while others will be well-known by audience members. Whether familiar or not, each is well-placed in the show, progressing the story.
A note about the sound: the levels must have been hard to ride but, with one brief exception, they are done to perfection; no one is drowned out and the lead instrument or voice shines out.
With sound and song coming from one, two, three or a host of people or instruments. This is no mean feat but, speaking with the sound man at the break, he gave all the credit to the sound designer, Bradley Danyluk.
All the factors: the sound, lighting, writing, music, arrangements, acting, singing and dancing that go into this production of It’s a Wonderful Life blend flawlessly to offer a production that works as a whole.
The set works and works well, with the moon’s visage showing up unobtrusively when needed. The only puzzling thing was architect’s measurements visible. They are a little distracting but nothing that mars the production.
Gregory Armstrong-Morris as Clarence, the bumbling angel hoping to finally earn his wings, was spot on. Nick Fontaine as George Bailey, occasionally channeling James Stewart, shone in this new new adaptation by director, Peter Jorgensen that garnered from both the movie version and the original 1939 story by Philip Van Doren Stern, The Greatest Gift.
Child actors are sometimes the weakest link in a production. Not so here. The two youngest actors, Kenzie Fraser and Alexander Sheppard-Reid, were professional-quality in their dual roles as young George and Mary, then as their children. Speaking to Fraser and Sheppard-Reid after the show, they both enthusiastically spoke of how great it is to work with such professionals, because they are learning so much.
Written at the end of the Great Depression, otherwise known as the Dirty Thirties, It’s a Wonderful Life emphasizes the problems of the working poor and their need affordable housing. One under riding theme is the dichotomy between those in finance who want to help people and those who keep the poor down by being slum lords—a theme not divorced from our present day.
Then we get to the female lead. I didn’t read the program ahead of time but listened intently when RBC presented their $15,000 cheque to Gateway Theatre for emerging artists.
Erin Palm, who played Mary, the love of George’s life was clearly a mature actor at the peak of her craft. At the reception afterwards, she radiated elegance and grace.
Then, I read my program. Palm is one of the emerging actors the RBC grant encourages. She’s actually a Langara Studio 58 student and a Capilano University Musical Theatre grad. Palm has a presence and skill that belie her years. In future, if Palm is in it, I’ll look for tickets.
Jovanni Sy took on three roles, one of them the antagonist, Mr. Potter. He was suitably sinister showing his acting and singing skills. As male lead, Fontaine, said, it is quite a stretch for someone as gentle and kind as Sy to play such a baddie.
One patron said afterwards that the old movie is going to seem pretty dull after this joint Gateway-Patrick Street Production. Go for the nostalgia. Go for the music. Go for the story of loss and redemption. But, go, see It’s a Wonderful Life at Gateway Theatre. On through Dec. 31 with some special performances, including a described matinee for the visually impaired. Buy your tickets while you can by calling 604-270-1812 or click.