“It’s A Wonderful Life!” with Exit 82 at The Strand Theater!

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

With Christmas Eve rapidly approaching, audience members of all ages settle in at The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ on Saturday, December 3, 2016, to see a matinee performance of a live presentation of the timeless holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Entitled It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, this unique production by Toms River’s Exit 82 Theatre Company is based on the beloved 1946 Frank Capra film, but with a clever twist — the entire story is staged in the form of a live radio broadcast!

The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play consists of six actors — Matt Dalton, Daniel Byrne, Billy Cardone, Elizabeth Ritacco, Jennifer Shrestha, and Nicole Grassino — who, as a group, portray several dozen characters, create sound effects, and perform live “on-air” commercials right before the audience’s eyes. There’s also a live jazz trio on stage featuring musicians Matt DeMarco on piano, Nick “Charles Mingus” Mariani on bass, and Steve Mariani on percussion.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about George Bailey, the manager of a small building and loan association in Bedford Falls, NY. Although George’s wish has always been to travel far beyond his hometown, circumstances have kept George perpetually tied to his family business. One Christmas Eve, George’s uncle loses a large bank deposit just as an auditor is examining George’s books, thus threatening financial ruin for George and his business.

When George begs greedy Mr. Potter, the richest man in town, to help resolve his financial crisis, Potter tells George he’s “worth more dead than alive.” With this in mind, George contemplates suicide — until a lovable angel-in-training named Clarence appears and shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had George never been born. With George’s newfound perspective, Clarence earns his angel wings as George realizes the value of his “wonderful life.”

Exit 82 Theatre Company’s presentation of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues its tradition of providing top-quality community theater productions at the historic Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ. Recent Exit 82 presentations include a mysterious and exciting version of Heathers the Musical, in addition to a joyous and visually stunning rendition of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Just as with their prior productions at The Strand, with It’s A Wonderful Life, Exit 82 once again scores with a top-notch presentation featuring a cadre of talented performers, a skilled producing and directing team, and solid production values including professional-quality sound, lighting, sets, and costumes.

Sean Openshaw, who, along with Carly Cosentino, co-produced It’s a Wonderful Life, reveals that Exit 82 chose to put on this particular show for several reasons. Explains Openshaw, “We were trying to find something different that would put people in the Christmas spirit. We also always wanted to do a non-musical, and this was a fun new adventure for the company. Lastly, the show is a classic that allows all of our actors to dive into some really serious character work.”

That said, Openshaw contends there were some true challenges to putting on It’s a Wonderful Life.

“This show is different because it’s not a ‘blockbuster’ musical,” asserts Openshaw, adding, “Instead, this is true storytelling.”

By way of explanation, Openshaw goes on to point out, “The actors in this show play multiple parts. Also, this piece is voice-driven — and there are a lot of layers to it! So, for example, instead of using foley artists, we chose to have the voice actors also perform the foley sounds — which provided us with the visual advantage of creating additional movement on stage — not to mention the fact that the cast had a lot of fun exploring all of the sounds for the foley in the show.”

The sound effects to which Openshaw refers include items like a tub of water and a plunger along with the use of a tin sheet to create the sound of a storm; a metal tray and a brush used together with a train whistle to create a chugging train, and the clacking of pairs of women’s high heels and men’s shoes to create the various characters’ footsteps.

Although this presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life at The Strand happens to be Exit 82’s final production of the 2016 season, Openshaw affirms the company is “poised for an exciting 2017,” a year in which they will feature several “shows that aren’t typically produced in this area.”

As such, their line-up for next season will include such notable Broadway offerings as Spring Awakenings in the spring, The Wedding Singer in the summer, and Into the Woods as their winter production. Declares Openshaw, “At Exit 82, we want to bring new fresh work to the theater community.”

And just where will all these shows be presented?

According to Openshaw, Exit 82 plans to present all of their 2017 shows here at The Strand revealing, “We love this beautiful venue and we feel blessed and fortunate to be here,” also going on to add, “The Strand has a great staff and we really enjoy working with them.”

Instrumental to the success of today’s Wonderful presentation is director Frankie Confalone. Although Confalone served as assistant director of Exit 82’s version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast this past summer, It’s a Wonderful Life marks his first time directing a full-length theatrical feature.

About this experience, Confalone exclaims, “It was incredible building everything from the ground up! We started with a read-through with the cast and then, through games and activities, encouraged the actors to ‘work through’ the emotional centers of the play, emboldening them to constantly ‘be in the room’ with one another.”

Confalone is also proud of the sense of community that pervades Exit 82’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life, explaining, There are so many layers of ‘community’ relative to this piece. You have the community of Exit 82 actors — who are portraying radio actors playing multiple characters in the show to create the community of Bedford Falls, NY — and, then, of course, they are presenting the show about this community to the community of theater-goers right here at The Strand!”

And what special words of directorial advice did Confalone give to his actors to make this production a memorable one?

Divulges Confalone, “The piece centers on the character of George and what would have happened had he never lived — but, as I explained to my cast, really, if anyone in Bedford Falls had never been there, it would have been a different outcome, too. So everyone relies on everyone else! And it’s the same thing with the cast of this show — they each build and rely on one another.”

And, from what we can see, the audience here at this afternoon performance of It’s a Wonderful Life at The Strand readily agrees with Confalone.

Jack, a teenager from Toms River, calls Exit 82’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, “Six Actor Magic.” Giving the presentation “four and a half — out of four — stars,” Jack goes on to explain, “It was brilliant — with great sound effects. I can’t believe six people did all that!”

Jack’s grandmother, Marion, also from Toms River, declares, “It was fantastic — just outstanding! I’ve always wanted to see what a radio play was like. I closed my eyes and it was just like when I used to listen to radio shows when I was little. I really connected with this show.”

Jack’s father, Robert, also enjoyed the show, suggesting folks “gather their families together, light the Christmas tree, and spend a magical evening in front of the radio!” Going on to note, “How they were able to change characters was amazing! This is how real radio actors did it — no second takes,” Robert further adds, “I haven’t yet seen the movie, but I can’t imagine it eclipsing this live experience.”

Several members of the cast also weigh in with their experiences as performers in Exit 82’s version of It’s A Wonderful Life at The Strand.

Matt Dalton, from Bordentown, who plays the role of George Bailey, says, “I tried to create my own George Bailey — I had never even seen the movie until half way through rehearsal— but I respected my acting and the director respected my acting enough to keep my original interpretation.”

And what about performing for the community as a member of this community theater rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Says Dalton, “It was an honor to touch people and have an effect and impact on the audience. It was heartwarming. And this community of actors? I love this group of actors! We bonded so well. We just took each other in and that made everyone feel welcome.”

Toms River’s Elizabeth Ritacco plays the role of George’s wife, Mary. According to Ritacco, presenting It’s a Wonderful Life as a radio play has its own unique challenges, disclosing, “It was very intimate. In this play there is no music to hide behind. It calls for you to be vulnerable.”

And what about the pressure of having to compete with the classic film of the same name?

Admits Ritacco, “We tried to pay homage to the original film, but in our version, we wanted the audience members to be able to close their eyes during the performance and still be entertained.”

Hearing from many people that Exit 82’s vision for the production works so well, Ritacco theorizes that this is partially due to the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life “is a very emotional show.”

Nicole Grassano from Toms River plays a variety of characters in It’s a Wonderful Life including the greedy bank owner Mr. Potter, at one point, accurately portraying a crying baby while still firmly grasping — instead of a baby bottle — nasty Mr. Potter’s prop cigar!

With regards to turning this classic film into a radio show, Grassano states, “It was super fun and exciting — and, also, beautiful and touching,” revealing, “every performance I do, I’m trying to hold back tears.” She also exclaims, “It was awesome to be able to perform this show! I love the movie — it really gets you in the holiday spirit — and I think everyone should watch it!”

A success from start to finish for everyone involved in this unique theatrical presentation, one member of the crowd — Valerie from Toms River — sums up the emotional experience at the heart of It’s A Wonderful Life when she confesses, “I saw this play three times and I cried at every performance.”

Echoing Valerie’s sentiments — with regards to being a part of the Exit 82 community as a member of the creative team, the performing ensemble, and the audience — it truly is a wonderful life!

For information on future Exit 82 Theatre Company presentations, please go to www.exit82theatre.com. To learn more about upcoming events at The Strand Theater — including The Atlantic City Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker on December 18, 2016 and One Night With Elvis! featuring Richie Santa on January 7, 2017 — please go to www.strand.org.

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