Sunset's 'It's A Wonderful Life' is money in the bank
Bryan Madson delivers strong performances as George Bailey

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

December 12, 2012

WAUKESHA - For the third time in recent history, the Sunset Playhouse has chosen “It’s a Wonderful Life” for its Christmas offering.   

People seem to like traditions, and this classic, which first appeared in a 1946 film by Frank Capra and later as a play in 1993 adapted by James W. Rodgers, has proven its staying power. The film version of this story has made the list of the 100 best American films.  

Despite its somewhat dated dialogue and its schmaltzy ending, I think we all enjoy seeing good deeds rewarded and someone’s life given a new direction. I suspect that, like “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, this play will continue to grace multiple stages for many years to come.  

Without a strong George Bailey, this play could fall on its face. Not to worry in this case. Bryan Madson more than delivers in this role, creating an earnest, three-dimensional human being we come to care for. And as we watch him re-live his life and agonize over the misfortunes that have befallen him as well as rejoice over his blessings, we are probably doing some life reviewing of our own. His compassion, his awkwardness, his persistence, his occasional frustrated outbursts, his eventual transformation - all ring true in Madson’s able hands. He is a joy to watch.  

Alongside him on his journey, several other strong actors stand out. Joseph Juknialis is another Scrooge in his role as Henry F. Potter.  Unfortunately for him and everyone else who has the displeasure of his company, he never changes. We enjoy hating him.  

Spencer Mather is lovable as the quirky guardian angel; Paula Keppeler has a good dose of spunk and warmth as George’s beloved Mary; Samantha Paige delivers her dual personalities very believably as Violet; and Stuart Mott deserves mention in his cameo role as George’s younger brother.  

A large cast of 24 enacts 29 roles, but many of those characters are not well-developed. However, they give one a feeling for Bedford Falls, N.Y., a small town where people typically look out for each other.  

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would know how our lives have affected others? Often people save up those memories and include them in our eulogies. I always hope the dead can hear them. Through the magic of an angel who wanted to earn his wings, George’s life is saved and, like Scrooge, George is given the privilege of reliving key moments in his life and seeing their worth.  A fantasy with much appeal.  

The scenic design by Michael Desper and built by A.J. Simon, though functional, is rather clunky operatively, and the many required changes sometimes break the flow of the story.  

Costumes by Joanne Cunningham are very authentic of the 1940s and bring back memories to those of us who are old enough to remember. Lighting and sound designers are Aaron Siegmann and Jan Pritzl, both of whom helped create mood. This worthwhile production is directed by Diana Alioto.