‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and it’s free

by | Nov 4, 2021 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

Here’s a bit of trivia about “It’s a Wonderful Life:” The classic movie is based on a 1939 story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.”

The idea behind Stern’s story is that life is the greatest gift of all, and that idea (with plenty of Hollywood twists and turns) sits at the big, beating heart of the 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Here’s a look at the set for “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” The beige box on the right is the Foley box, which provides many of the sound effects for the show.

Now, nearly 75 years later, Oregon State University’s Theatre Department is returning to live performances with a gift of its own: It’s staging a production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” with six performances starting Thursday, Nov. 4. (See below for details about dates and showtimes.) The best part of the gift: Tickets to the production are free.

“There were only positives to make it free and there were no negatives,” said Andrew Beck, an instructor in the Theatre Department and the director of the play. Part of the idea, he said, was simply to celebrate the return of live performances after nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and to send a message to audiences: “We just want you back. We want you to come be part of this experience.”

There is a somewhat more practical reason behind the decision, Beck said: In the event of another COVID resurgence, theater managers don’t have to worry about offering refunds.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” takes the familiar story of how an angel shows the desperate George Bailey how his life has touched the lives of many residents of his small town and adds a twist: The story is being told via a 1940s-era radio play, complete with Foley sound effects (created live on stage), Christmas songs and ersatz advertisements.

That means the actors on stage essentially have double duties: They play characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but also portray the actor performing in the radio play. Beck said the twist breathes new life into the old show: “For people who are very familiar with the text, you get the added layer of the fun of watching the Foley work” and other behind-the-scenes hijinks.

And, Beck said, for all the nostalgic appeal of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it’s still got a timely message. Characters “talk about a man who puts money over people and people living in huts in a field who can’t pay rent. … That’s what we’re dealing with today.”

“I really love the general message, which is if we all come together and if we all act in each other’s interests, we can overcome anything. I think that’s a message that we need now more than ever.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has more than 40 characters; Beck has eight actors in his cast. That requires considerable versatility on the part of the actors, and that was something Beck was looking for in the show’s auditions. Beck chose a page from the script that included lines for nine separate characters – and asked auditioners to play all nine parts.

“The people who really excelled at that, those are the people who you’ll see on the stage,” he said. And that drive to take creative risks carried into rehearsals: “What I’ve been most impressed with is their willingness to experiment, the big crazy choices they’ve made, the big fun they’ve had and how hard they’ve made me laugh, even to this day.”

Beck hopes that feeling carries through to the audience. “I always enjoy a theater evening where you’re going to have a good laugh and you’re going to feel good, and that’s what you’ll get from this. … More than anything, I feel that’s what we all need. We need a laugh, we need to feel good, we need to be part of a community.”

If You Go

WHAT: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” a production of the Oregon State University Theatre Department.

WHEN: Nov. 4, 5, 6 and 12 at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 7 and 14. The Nov. 7 performance will feature sign language interpretation.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are free! That’s not a typo! Tickets are free. You can reserve tickets by clicking here. Tickets are general admission.

WHERE: Withycombe Hall Main Stage, 2921 SW Campus Way on the OSU campus in Corvallis.

THE CAST: Noah Fox, Riley Lucas, Tegan Olmsted, Dimitri Rose, Hannah Schwartz, Savannah Taggard, AJ Glessner and Kane Sweeney.

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