It’s a Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

John Keabler & Elizabeth Colwell. Photo: Jerry Dalia

For many Americans, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a repeat viewing of the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. You can also see this heart-warmer, on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Opening night was December 9, and the production directed by Doug West, will be playing through December 31.

In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation presented here, the story is staged as a live 1940s radio play, and the audience is, well, the studio audience. (In real life, the film was adapted for radio several times.) This stage version offers the opportunity for cast members to interact, not just as the radio-play’s characters, but also as actors in a radio studio. Other delightful touches include the “Applause” light that flashes above the stage manager’s glass booth, the advertisements for hair tonic and soap presented Andrews Sisters style, the presence on stage of the sound effects man (foley artist Warren Pace), whose activities are endlessly entertaining (and effective!), and the live piano playing of cast members, especially Russell Sperberg, who plays hero George Bailey’s younger brother and wrote original music for the production.

Lest you fear all this peripheral activity detracts from the story of George Bailey’s (played by John Keabler) discovery of the importance of his life, it does not. The actors, placed mostly in front of standing mikes, create believable relationships, and the one between George and his wife Mary (Susan Maris) is especially strong. Angel Clarence Oddbody (Andy Paterson) watches over the unfolding story, just as expected. All secondary actors play multiple parts, with vocal changes that, if you closed your eyes, would work perfectly for radio.

There’s one set (the studio) and one basic costume, embellished with hats and vests and aprons to distinguish among the characters. These quick-change artists include John Ahlin (who plays evil Mr. Potter and others), Elizabeth Colwell (Violet, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu), Leavell Javon Johnson (the announcer, Horace, and others), James Michael Reilly (Billy Bailey and others), the aforementioned Russell Sperberg (Harry Bailey and others), and Tina Stafford (George’s mother and others). All the acting is totally up to this fast-paced production. My only reservation is that Keabler’s portrayal of George relies less on his own individual characterization and a bit too much on Jimmy Stewart’s, while I suspect Keabler is well capable of developing George in his own way.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Holiday Favorites!

Nutcracker, Christmas

(photo: wikimedia)

“Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” –Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory – Hear it here.

See this photo gallery: China’s Harbin Ice Festival.

“This,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr. Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.” Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the furthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face. —Charles Dickens, “A Good-Humored Christmas” Chapter 28 from The Pickwick Papers.

Antiquity Now!’s 12/17 post gives a recipe for Sfeni—yeast doughnuts dipped in honey—a traditional Sephardic Hanukkah dish. Looks pretty yummy! Check out the Antiquity Now! Website throughout the holiday season for more cross-cultural celebrations.

“’Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.” –John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the Trenches.” See it performed here.

Don’t miss the ever-popular YouTube video: “Chinese Food on Christmas”!

Now I’m off to make an eggnog pie. Back in 2016!! Happy New Year! Celebrate with these Dancing Fireworks!

****All The Light We Cannot See

Anthony DoerrBy Anthony Doerr. (Read by Zach Appelman.) A sweet and satisfying story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French girl blind from childhood, and an orphaned German boy, Werner Pfennig, who is a genius with radios, and how their paths intersect in the desperate, waning days of World War II. Marie-Laure’s father—keeper of the keys at Paris’s Museum of Natural History—builds her a perfect model of their neighborhood, first in Paris, then in the walled city of Saint-Malo, where they flee to live with his uncle when the Nazis invade. By studying these replicas, she learns how to navigate her world.

The Saint-Malo model hides a secret, an invaluable diamond, a diamond with a peculiar light in its center, entrusted to her father for safekeeping, but a Nazi loot-hunter is on the trail. The difficulty of surviving for these two extremely perceptive prodigies, is tensely portrayed, and the light and lack of it in their worlds takes different forms, both literal and symbolic. While the circumstances of war are familiar—especially World War II in Europe—the particular reactions of these main characters are “surprisingly fresh and enveloping,” says Janet Maslin in the New York Times.

I’m not a fan of final chapter postscripts that let you know what happened to characters and their families in later years, feeling that better left to the reader’s devising, based on a book’s-worth of clues and insights. And, while I usually bow down in praise of the skills of audiobook narrators, this one was oddly off-hand, floaty and lacking in necessary heft.

There Are No Children Here

By Alex Kotlowitz – This is an award-winning, almost 25-year-old book that I’ve wanted to read for a long time (thank you West Windsor Library book sale!), documenting living conditions in the Henry Horner Homes a now-demolished housing project of the notorious Chicago Housing Authority. It is credited with making a substantial contribution to reforms in public housing that have attempted to reduce the isolation of the poor, combat violence and drug abuse, and improve building maintenance and living conditions for those who remain in public housing. Chicago-based media impresario Oprah Winfrey produced a made-for-tv movie version in 1993.

The book focuses on one large family, particularly two young brothers, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 10 and seven at the outset, and follows their lives for three years. While Kotlowitz says he didn’t start out with the goal of public housing reform, no one who read the book—then or now—can fail to be affected by how public systems have failed so many American children. A 2011 interview with Kotlowitz revisted his experience writing this book and the subsequent fates of Pharoah and Lafeyette.

This year’s Peabody Awards recognized coverage of the continued neglect of low-income teens in WBEZ (This American Life) radio documentaries about Chicago’s Harper High School (Part 1 and Part 2) and the PBS documentary about a Washington, D.C., high school, 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. But, as Chicago Public Radio’s Linda Lutton said, “I would trade every prize in the world for them to live in a different reality.”


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