Patrick Street Productions presents It’s a Wonderful Life, a new musical adaptation @ Anvil Centre, 777 Columbia St., New Westminster, until Jan. 5, 2020, shows at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets from $29. For more details: anvilcentre.com/events/its-a-wonderful-life
Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you still know it.
It’s a Wonderful Life is all around us; There’s that famous scene in The Simpsons where Homer, jubilant after discovering that the fictional hair supplement Dimoxinil has restored his head to a mane of flowing locks, runs ecstatic through the streets of Springfield yelling “Hello!” to every person and streetlamp he encounters, a parody of the iconic scene in the movie where George Bailey gets his life back and runs through the streets of Bedford Falls doing the same thing.
When a young Kevin McCallister got his wish and made his family disappear in Home Alone, a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life appears on a TV screen, just for a second in a French translation. As the family abroad waits around desperately trying to get back to the burglar beating eight-year-old, the classic clip showcases the uncanny feeling of watching a beloved Christmas classic in another country, thousands of miles from home.
The references to Frank Capra’s 1946 classic in other media, overt or not, have been numerous in the decades that have proceeded it. Much like ancient Greek myths, the Bible, and Shakespeare, It’s a Wonderful Life’s impact on popular culture is so vast that it’s referenced in movies and TV and theatre even if the intention’s not explicit – pretty much any scene where a character questions their own life or what the world would be like without them it indirectly owes a debt to that fateful night where Bailey thinks about ending it all and is visited by his guardian angel Clarence.
North Vancouver actor Nick Fontaine admits he hadn’t seen the film when he was cast in It’s a Wonderful Life’s musical adaptation, but notes he was delighted to finally have an excuse to watch it and see why it’s such a touchstone picture, especially at this time of year.
“That was really neat to see what I’d been missing, and to see the truth behind all the satire around the film that I’d seen,” says Fontaine. “Satire is a very sincere form of flattery. … To see the richness and the life behind that was remarkable.”
Fontaine grew up in Cortes Island, B.C., where he says the small but artistically-rich community had a vibrant creative scene but was also lacking when it came to access to certain pop cultural benchmarks.
“We didn’t have access to a lot of iconic pop culture, so this is one of the films that I didn’t grow up watching. I grew up in a place with no TV, the only radio station we had was CBC,” he says. “That was fun because when I got cast in this part that made me aware that this was a classic that I’d missed out on my whole life.”
Describing actor Jimmy Stewart’s performance as the down-on-life George Bailey in the original picture as “rich and varied and nuanced and emotional and painful,” Fontaine will be channeling a similar energy, albeit one with more song and dance, as he takes his own turn playing the exemplary character.
“The show uses the original screenplay – when you come to see a show the words you will hear performed are the very same words that are in Frank Capra’s classic,” he says.
Where this musical adaptation of the movie differs, however, is that it draws music from the Great American Songbook to infuse the production with a very quintessential early-20th century American feel. The audience can expect to hear plenty of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin as the production moves along, according to Fontaine.
“The show has a soundscape that is totally iconic and will be quite recognizable to most people and at the same time there’s lot of new surprises for people that might even consider themselves aficionados of the 20th century,” he says.
Asked what his favourite moment as Bailey is in the production, Fontaine says it’s when his character gets to meet Mary Hatch, his character’s great love, for the first time as an adult. The moment’s especially meaningful for Fontaine because the actor who portrays Hatch, Erin Palm, is a close friend of his.
“To get to share those exciting moments of playing two people who are falling in love for the first time – and it’s very scary and it’s vulnerable – and to go through that with somebody that is such a close friend, somebody who I trust and enjoy being around as much as Erin, is a real treat,” he says.
It’s a sentiment that anyone who has seen It’s a Wonderful Life – whether it’s the original film or its musical counterpart – would likely understand.
In summing up how we define our own self-worth and quest for meaning in these trying times, Clarence the guardian angel says it best: “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends.”