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IT'S A STEVIE WONDERFUL LIFE

By Dany Margolies
Back Stage West

Some shows make us smile. Some offer a chuckle or two. Some may offer a thigh-slapping moment. But it's a rare and treasured show such as this one that makes us laugh until we drool, leaving us breathless.

This production certainly does not cruelly skewer the iconic 1946 Jimmy Stewart starrer It's a Wonderful Life. This sophisticated adaptation, by director Matt Walker and Troubadour Theater Company, tidily distills the original. The angel Clarence (Michelle Anne Johnson) is here, back on Earth to earn his wings. George Bailey (Walker) is of course Clarence's homework; Mary (Erin Matthews) of course marries George; the townspeople are at the ready, facing the same conflicts and triumphs as in the film. But the company updates the references and interweaves the music of Stevie Wonder into the plot.

George's Pa here is an African-American (Larry Thigpen). Together the afro-bewigged George and his Pa sing "Ebony and Ivory." Together they're not in perfect harmony. And here's where we can spot Troubadour's notorious pseudo-raggedness: In general the show's singing is horrible. But they know it, mocking themselves. At least the onstage band is tight under music director/bassist Andre P. Holmes. Walker does a comedically dreadful Jimmy Stewart impression. Would the show be half as funny with a flawless impersonation?

Matthews is a dynamite ingénue, with superb comedic skills and a lovely singing voice. George and Mary share a telephone (two tin cans? after all, how much can the Falcon Theatre's Garry Marshall keep spending on these guys?) while chatting with best friend Sam (Tim Groff). Sam tells them, "I just called to say I love you." They sing "My Mary Amour." Do George and Mary kiss? That's too ordinary. Instead, Walker gnaws on Matthews' cheek, while tears of gleeful laughter roll down ours.

The genial Johnson's Clarence opens the evening by singing "Have a Talk With God." As the wheelchair-bound town grouch, Mr. Potter, Morgan Rusler delivers impeccable comedy. In their scenes, Johnson and Rusler improvise a bit with Walker; it's barely noticeable as improv, and it's seamlessly interwoven into the production, showing that these actors are at the top of that craft.

Playing druggist Mr. Gower, who here is also said to service Rush Limbaugh, Beth Kennedy wears a bald skullcap and macerates a cigar; with every line and glance she is sidesplittingly funny. The physicality of the company's commedia roots is still evident. Harry (a terrific Guilford Adams) sleds into the lake, but at least this is one of the few Troubadour shows in which the front row need not suffer the onstage splashing.

The choreography is adorable; Faith Ernest-Rapoport gets program credit, but the footwork looks suspiciously as if Walker had his way with it. Watch for Clarence and the archangel Joseph (Mike Sulprizio, also masterfully handling other roles) slow-dancing to the onstage ballads. Several scenes are also enacted backstage, live on video, carefully including warts and all. It's a wonderful show, particularly if you like the feeling of nearly passing out from laughing too hard.

"It's a Stevie Wonderful Life," presented by Troubadour Theater Company at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. Dec. 6-28. $25-37. (818) 955-8101.
Written in 2003

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