ST. PETERSBURG — So you think you know a lot of the dialogue from It's a Wonderful Life?
Probably not as much as Christopher Swan, who has it all down: George Bailey's folksy drawl, Mary singing "Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight,'' old man Potter's scowling contempt for the Baileys, the "Hee-Haw!'' that Sam Wainwright bawls and so on and so forth, all the familiar tropes of Life.
He even acts out the kiss between George and Mary in the phone scene. "One of those old-style Hollywood kisses,'' Swan says (he's also the narrator, a diehard fan of the movie). "Where they mush their mouths together but can't ever find each other's lips.''
Swan is Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Gloria Grahame (a vampy highlight) and everyone else in This Wonderful Life. The one-man show written by Steve Murray and conceived by Mark Setlock is an affectionate homage to the classic Christmas movie, now playing at American Stage.
To support Swan's acting tour de force, director Todd Olson pulled out all the stops in his production, reveling in the technical capacity of the company's new theater. His deployment of set (Frank Chavez), lighting (Beau B. Edwardson) and sound design (Olson) is dazzling.
The effects range from pinpoints of light twinkling in the sky as angels Franklin, Joseph and Clarence assess the situation in Bedford Falls; to the glassy stage surface, suggesting the river that George prepares to throw himself into on the worst day of his life, Christmas Eve; to Uncle Billy's tombstone popping up from the floor during the Pottersville nightmare. The swirling snow in blue lighting looks gorgeously chilly.
Swan is such a terrific companion that you wish the play gave him more interesting things to say than simply dialogue from the movie, which constitutes most of the 55-page script. Sure, those lines are cherished by fans, but they can be experienced for real whenever you want to rent the DVD or track down a showing in a theater or on TV. What's most fun in This Wonderful Life is when the narrator supplies droll commentary on the sacred text, as in puzzling over why the bank examiner turns up on Christmas Eve to go through the books at Bailey Building and Loan.
If one insight takes the play in a fresh direction, it is the notion that for all its warm seasonal glow, It's a Wonderful Life is more obsessed with cold, hard cash than people realize. That is driven home as Auld Lang Syne swells up in the finale while money rains down on George.
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You can make it a holiday double header at American Stage this weekend. After performances of This Wonderful Life, St. Petersburg Opera will present "A Christmas Cabaret,'' with singers Phoenix Gayles, Michelle Rego, Stephen Mollica and Rimas Karnavicius in a program that ranges from Mister Santa to Ave Maria. 10 p.m. today and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Pay what you can.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.