More plots enhance Next Act's 'Wonderful Life'

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

December 19, 2013


WAUKESHA - We’d all like to think that our lives have made a difference.  That is why “It’s A Wonderful Life” appeals to so many people. If only we would know how we have affected others in a positive way, it would be a good remedy for our days of doubt and despair. George Bailey had that rare chance to relive his past life and discover his worth. So did Scrooge, but the insights they derived were different.

The Next Act Theatre is repeating its Christmas offering - “It’s A Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” - which dishes up the old classic with a different twist, one in which we are really privy to three different stories simultaneously - the original script, a backstage look at how radio worked in presenting a drama you could hear and only imagine, and a third plot going on between former lovers, Judy and James, who, by a happy accident, are thrown together again in this swan song to a defunct radio station.

Six actors people the radio crew, and they are quite flexible in the many roles they tackle. David Cecsarini, who also directed the show, does most of the sound effects, and takes on the characters of Italian saloonkeeper, George’s father, Uncle Billy and the town pharmacist. Bo Johnson is the crusty town curmudgeon and one of George Bailey’s young boys.  

Debra Babich covers a wide range of female characters, from Zuzu, Bailey’s little daughter, to a strident mother to Bailey’s angel Clarence, who is trying to earn his wings by helping George. Mary MacDonald Kerr, besides her role as writer of the script, is a supportive Mary, George’s wife, and is also the former girlfriend of James, the man who plays George, and she proves compassionate toward him in his depression. As the play ends, we are left hanging as they leave the studio together. Everything has worked out fine with George and his family, but we don’t know if Judy and James also will find each other again. I liked the contrast. As in all radio shows, something is left to the imagination.

Jack Wilson Forbes, who directed all the music and plays the piano at times, also takes on some cameo roles. Besides the re-enactment of the play itself, the whole group renders some old commercials with zest and harmony between acts and after the curtain call. It is fun to hear some of those catchy tunes again, especially if you’re old enough to remember them.

Norman Moses, as George, proves again that he can play any role with credibility and passion. How many times I have encountered this story, and yet am moved to tears by George’s “return to life.” I’ve never seen a more compelling interpretation of this scene than the one created by Moses.

One of the fascinations of this piece is definitely revisiting a radio studio pre-TV when many dramas and comedies were standard fare there. It’s hard for kids born in the 1950s and ‘60s to imagine just listening to a story and not seeing it. A very creative show, reminding us of days gone by and also the resilience of the entertainment world. TV didn’t wipe out radio or movies, and live theater lives on forever, thanks to the talents of dedicated actors, directors, and tech staff and design artists, who bring us amazing shows such as this.

“It’s A Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” runs through Jan. 5 at the Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit