Friday, June 22, 2018
Stage

Review: Stageworks' 'This Wonderful Life' condenses a holiday classic

TAMPA — Stageworks Theatre has never been afraid to take a chance.

The show running now, This Wonderful Life, a staged version of the Frank Capra-Jimmy Stewart Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, would seem like a safe bet. Except for one thing: One actor plays all 37 parts.

So the town of Bedford Falls consists of a few doll houses arranged on an otherwise bare set by award-winning scenic designer Scott Cooper. Larry Alexander plays all of the people in it, notably George Bailey, the beleaguered but honest developer of Bedford Falls, and Mr. Potter, the slumlord who runs him out of business.

Now really, why would anyone do this?

The answer has as much to do with theater as it does about a sweet story that doesn't age, even though the dollar figures do. One actor playing everybody (plus a reliable narrator, thank god) is not a new gambit. But it's something theaters are doing a lot more of in recent years, not only to cut costs but showcase skills.

Alexander, a Tampa native with a long and accomplished career, is a versatile enough actor to pull it off. And the notion of doing this story as a one-man show, conceived by Mark Setlock, is little less of a stretch than it might seem. George is existentially alone, after all, the way Job was alone. The story is about his aloneness, and also karma and goodwill suitable for the holidays.

So maybe going in, you have two questions: Can this be done? And how long is it going to last?

It comes down to storytelling, in the major conflict that emerges early. Mr. Potter's financial manipulations have brought George to the edge of ruin. George didn't want to be there in the first place, he was ambitious and had places to go. But duty forced him to take over his father's failing business.

It gets worse, as you almost surely know, and an angel comes along and, in Dickensian fashion, shows George why his life is not only worth living, but indispensable to the town.

Alexander recreates some engaging face-offs between George and Mr. Potter. He and director Karla Hartley, who is also Stageworks' producing artistic director, know that to make this work, you might as well ham it up and go for broke.

The script is tight, and the story flies by much more quickly than the movie. By definition, it's pretty busy, but you've bought into that or you wouldn't be there.

Major characters come alive, including Mary, George's childhood sweetheart and long-suffering wife. Watching Alexander dance the Charleston, you would never suspect he broke his foot a week or so before the show opened Dec. 2. Apparently he is fine now.

Alexander supplies some off-stage voices as well, including an anxious mob outside his building and loan company and his four screaming children.

It's surely not a spoiler to say good wins out in the end. Nor, if you take part of an evening to catch This Wonderful Life, will you necessarily regret it. But it kind of has to be your thing, whether to satisfy a curiosity or to support a gutsy endeavor.

As far as the worthiness of that investment of time goes, you could do worse. You could probably do better, too.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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