It’s a Wonderful Life, A New Musical Adaptation by Peter Jorgensen, Gateway Theatre, Richmond, Dec. 6-31. For more information visit gatewaytheatre.com.
When director Peter Jorgensen was casting for a new adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, he had someone specifically in mind to play the iconic role of George Bailey.
“I really enjoy working with (North Vancouver actor) Nick Fontaine. The combination of his overall energy and presence on stage … I really heard his singing voice on a lot of these songs and I thought he would sound really great on this material,” Jorgensen explains over the phone from Saskatoon where he is currently directing a production of Fiddler on The Roof.
The North Vancouver-bred director was first asked to direct the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, in 2013 for the Chemainus Theatre Festival. “We looked around at the various adaptations and we didn’t particularly like any of them so the idea crossed my mind of using music from the era and maybe a couple Christmas songs as the score … and we all felt like we were on to something,” Jorgensen says.
Over the last five years, a number of different versions have been produced, including one which ran in Saskatoon and another one in Hamilton, Ont., and Jorgenson has been tweaking various aspects along the way. “After the original production we took some time to really comb through the dialogue and finesse that,” says Jorgensen. With this upcoming Richmond production, Jorgensen feels they have come close to a fully polished product.
The play is adapted from Frank Capra’s beloved film, originally released in 1946 and nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was also named one of the 100 Greatest Films Ever Made by the American Film Institute. While Jorgensen has made a point of maintaining the film’s iconic scenes in the Patrick Street Productions musical, he says he took liberties to play around with certain aspects. “I really wanted to keep some of the signature moments from the film but also wanted to give people a different experience of It’s A Wonderful Life… I think that’s part of what we do with it being a musical. Capra’s film is brilliant and its expressiveness comes through cinematography and you just can’t do that on stage. We heighten the expressiveness of this movie through music in this adaptation,” says Jorgensen.
Jorgensen focused on developing some of the characters more deeply than was done in the original film. “I played around with Clarence the Angel a little bit. In the film we don’t really see Clarence until he splashes in the river to save George’s life. In the musical we see him right from the moment he’s present. So we see him watching the whole story of George’s life unfold,” Jorgensen says.
Some of the signature moments, including the Charleston dance scene in the gymnasium where the floor separates to reveal a swimming pool, could not be recreated for obvious logistical reasons, so Jorgensen got creative. “We wanted to honour that piece of the story so we have a little Charleston-esque dance number early in the show … There’s a cool movement piece we’ve created to express the panic and anxiety that mounts around the run on the bank when George has to save the building and loan,” says the director.
Aside from these adjustments, Jorgensen has kept the story line from the original 1946 film intact, and he says the movie’s heart-warming message is still as relevant today as it was to audiences in the 1940s. “One of the things I love about George Bailey is kind of how average he is. He’s not really an extraordinary person and he’s kind of full of flaws, too. He’s an average guy that makes the lives of people around him that much better just by behind kind and generous and caring for them and I think that’s a message we all need to hear over and over again,” he explains.
The message might actually be even more poignant today, says Jorgensen: “With the news that we get about the world, it’s a good reminder that we can make the world a better place in small ways that can make a difference to us. And I think there’s a ripple effect to that.”