By PAM HARBAUGH
Consider the family Christmas tree. You’ve got some very special ornaments that dazzle exquisitely alongside perfectly placed twinkling lights. Then there are the popcorn strings, and the little handprints your precious ones made and maybe a glittery pinecone or two. But it’s the holidays, so you’ve got to have it all.
That lopsided, goofy and delightful mix is what the Henegar delivers in its production of “A Wonderful Life: The Musical.” Brilliant bits bring you back from cringe-worthy moments, resulting in a wonderfully heartfelt, boldly uneven production that opens its arms wide and says “Take me as I am, dammit!”
The musical, written by lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Joe Raposo, is based on Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That, in turn, is based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s story “The Greatest Gift.”The story concerns George Bailey, a man who had plans to study architecture in college and then travel the world. His plans are dashed, though, when he’s forced to take over the family business – the Bailey Building and Loan Association. Mr. Bailey turns out to be the town’s good guy, and when threatened with financial ruin, is rescued by noble actions in earthly and heavenly forms.
As George Bailey, David Baum brings humanity, humor and even a touch of dashing romance to the stage. He goes for the big stage stuff and achieves it in song and emotion.
This is a real departure for actor Terrence Girard who is adorable as Clarence, an angel sent to rescue George Bailey. His delightful performance elicits from the audience a deserved “awwww.” In fact, Mr. Girard is just so darned cute you want to pinch his cheeks.
Steven Wolf turns up the volume on greedy, mean old Mr. Potter, the man who tries to take the family business away from George Bailey. His oily attempts to manipulate George fall flat and the audience cheers. Always at his side is his silent secretary, played with big humor by Leslie McGinty.
The challenging music is handled easily by the orchestra, led by George Kobosko, and especially so by Merissa Laite, who is “Mary” in the show. She has all the hallmarks of a professionally trained singer and can climb those high notes with crystal clarity.
But the script has problematic moments, including an overlong Charleston dance scene, a “taxi” taking George through the town, an oncoming train and so very many scenic shifts.
Director Anthony Mowad uses whimsy and invention to solve the problems. In fact, his solutions (including that corn-bred “taxi”), add to the story’s naïve sweet spot.
Scenic designer Brighid Reppert creates an appealing two-story set evocative of Washington, D.C., which makes one wonder if yet another Jimmy Stewart movie is about to take shape on the stage.
But the costumes seemed a bit thrown together, especially those modern hats for the men rather than larger brimmed 1940s fedoras.
Indeed, you get the whole community theater magilla in the Henegar Center’s production of “A Wonderful Life: The Musical.” You will laugh, you will cry, you will squirm in your seat while trying to read your watch. But more than anything, you’ll leave thoroughly immersed in holiday spirit and good feelings, all laced together like popcorn on a string.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “A Wonderful Life: The Musical” runs through Dec. 21 at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $26 general, $23 senior (65 +) and $16 children. Handling charges apply. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.Henegar.org.