review by Janet I. Martineau
Ah, there is nothing like watching a live radio play.
Yes, WATCHING. And yes, LIVE and PLAY. On radio.
For the second year, the Saginaw Valley State University Theatre Department has recreated an old-time radio show as a holiday production.
Last year it was “A Christmas Carol.”
This week (Wednesday and tonight, Thursday) it’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that old Jimmy Stewart movie classic about a discouraged man contemplating suicide until an angel -- a second class one -- intervenes.
What is fun about these recreations is the story within a story -- the actors milling about on stage as themselves before the play airs live or during commercials and then snapping magically into their characters.
This outing, set in 1945 as was the movie, tested them. The ensemble of 14 plays a variety of characters in the large cast its detailed story requires, from old folks in Bedford Falls to kids. We were going to keep count, but got too wrapped up in the storytelling and lost count. Whomever they were at any given time worked just fine for us.
And fun, too, is watching the sound effects team...like when one of the actors gets supposedly slapped, only it is the sound effects guy several feet away who makes the skin hitting skin sound with his two hands. Or, when the actors are walking down a street, it’s the sound effects people doing the audible walking. One of the sound effects trio also has, shall we say, a little drinking problem in progress (one of those story within a story moments).
Last year’s production featured SVSU theater professors in the cast amid their students. So too this year, and in the major roles this time. David Rzeszutek is George Bailey, the man who is doubting the path his life has taken. Ric Roberts is the kinda naive rescue Angel, Clarence. And Steven Erickson is Mr. Potter, a grumpy old villain. All three are superb, and we applaud this idea of SVSU theater students getting to see if their teachers have any acting chops.
Providing chuckles are the announcements and commercials. Listen for references to Lionel trains at Brasseur’s, Potter Street Station, Seitner’s, the Savoy Grill and Ippel’s Department Store -- some of which still exist but some of which are somewhere back in time in Saginaw history. And the costumes are vintage-looking.
Wednesday night’s opener had a few sound problems. The actors sometimes had an echo quality and the organ was faint. Roberts when he was an announcer was barely audible; fine when he was the angel. Methinks one of the sound effects folks also made a goof...or maybe he was supposed to as part of the fun.
But it was a great way to spend an hour, and to realize that wow, does the story and the message of “It’s a Wonderful Life” ever ring true for these hard times. Kinda spooky at how relevant it remains.
Roberts has promised to make this radio show recreation thing an annual outing, and has picked some Christmas short stories for 2012. Myself, an actor/sound effects person doing old time radio shows with an acting troupe in Midland, well, I can’t wait. They are ever so much fun (and I always pick up tips from what SVSU does!)