Pe­ter Jor­gensen weaves nos­tal­gic tunes into new mu­si­cal ren­di­tion of It’s a Won­der­ful Life

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By Mike Usinger

A new mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion of It’s A Won­der­ful Life at the Gate­way Theatre takes on the task of re-cre­at­ing Bed­ford Falls and Ge­orge Bai­ley for the stage.

Uplift­ing as it ul­ti­mately is, It’s a Won­der­ful Life has a dark un­der­belly, with Frank Capra’s tale of a big­dream­ing ev­ery­man from Bed­ford Falls filled with lost op­por­tu­ni­ties and se­ri­ous life re­grets.

What makes the main char­ac­ter of Ge­orge Bai­ley so fas­ci­nat­ing is he spends years un­able to see all that he has, his end­less tri­als lead­ing him to that fa­bled se­quence on the bridge where sui­cide seems the only way out.

Bai­ley is a man pushed to the point where he ends up in bar fights, kicks the fur­ni­ture around in front of his kids, yells at his wife, and gen­er­ally wakes up con­vinced he’s missed ev­ery boat that’s ever sailed from the crummy lit­tle town that he’s spent his life in.

Flawed? Ab­so­lutely, which is what makes him, and the movie, so cap­ti­vat­ing. On some level there’s a bit of Ge­orge Bai­ley in all of us—a guy do­ing the best he can in a world where things sel­dom go ac­cord­ing to plan.

And it’s that re­lata­bil­ity that Van­cou­ver’s Pe­ter Jor­gensen first picked up on when he set about reimag­in­ing Capra’s sprawl­ing clas­sic as a mu­si­cal.

“We’ve been talk­ing about this in re­hearsals—he’s full of flaws,” the writer and di­rec­tor says from Saska­toon, where he’s also jug­gling a Prairie pro­duc­tion of Fid­dler on the Roof. “But that’s what makes the story so great. He’s not this per­fect hero. He’s re­ally an ev­ery­day guy with all sorts of ev­ery­day stress. He’s not the per­fect fam­ily man, and he’s not the per­fect per­son, yet he still man­ages to do in­cred­i­ble kind­nesses for the peo­ple around him and the peo­ple that he loves. He makes the world a bet­ter place in all the small ways that he takes for granted.”

Jor­gensen isn’t the first play­wright to give It’s a Won­der­ful Life the mu­si­cal treat­ment—in fact, he even acted in a mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion of it dur­ing his younger years. When it came time to create his own ver­sion, he was de­ter­mined to do things dif­fer­ently than past out­ings, one of his big­gest chal­lenges be­ing to cap­ture the many dra­matic peaks of the film.

“We’re deal­ing with hu­man emo­tions that can be re­ally hard to put your fin­ger on,” says Jor­gensen, who’s also co–artis­tic pro­ducer of Van­cou­ver’s mu­si­cal-happy Patrick Street Pro­duc­tions. “And mu­sic can help you get beyond words into a deeper mean­ing and a deeper ex­pres­sion. That’s what we’ve tried to em­ploy here.”

To ac­com­plish that, Jor­gensen’s pro­duc­tion—which he first staged in Che­mai­nus to great re­views a few years back—leans heav­ily on songs from the ’20, ’30s, and ’40s, with Christ­mas stan­dards sprin­kled through­out and ar­range­ments and or­ches­tra­tions by Nico Rhodes.

“I had to strip down the di­a­logue from the film quite sig­nif­i­cantly,” he says. “The screen­play was writ­ten at a time when peo­ple liked peo­ple talk­ing a lot in films, so there was a lot of re­dun­dancy, peo­ple mak­ing the same point over and over again. So it wasn’t too hard com­press­ing the di­a­logue. Our adap­ta­tion is a few min­utes shorter than the movie while still mak­ing space for the songs. And I didn’t want blocks of songs, so we ar­ranged them in a way—as we al­ways try to do with mu­si­cals—that they flow nat­u­rally out of the di­a­logue. Some­times we hear a verse or two and it flows back into the scene so that the emo­tional ride fol­lows the lives of the char­ac­ters.”

As all ob­ses­sives know, the town of Bed­ford Falls looms just as large in It’s a Won­der­ful Life as Ge­orge Bai­ley, Un­cle Billy, and Old Man Pot­ter do. The film wouldn’t be the same with­out the phono­graph-pow­ered chicken roast­ing on the fire at the drafty Old Granville House or an­gels get­ting their “wings” at a rau­cous Nick’s Bar in the al­ter­na­tive uni­verse known as Pot­tersville.

Jor­gensen is well aware of that, and the look of his It’s a Won­der­ful Life is al­most as im­por­tant as the script and the mu­sic.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful set by Brian Ball, and I’m re­ally, re­ally happy with it,” he says. “It man­ages to in­cor­po­rate both the city of Bed­ford Falls as well as a bridge unit that also has the feel­ing of the in­side of the house— there’s a stair­way com­ing down from the bridge that be­comes the stair­case in the Old Granville House. We’ve tried to pull all of the flavours of all of those things into the piece. We’ve got all the mo­ments, like the loose knob on the ban­is­ter. I tried to keep as many sig­na­ture mo­ments from the movie as pos­si­ble in the show—the ones that peo­ple stop for when they’re wrap­ping presents and watch­ing the movie.”

Count Jor­gensen as a fan. He ad­mits he dis­cov­ered It’s a Won­der­ful Life in adult­hood, fi­nally watch­ing the movie af­ter land­ing a part in the adap­ta­tion he starred in 15 years ago.

“I re­mem­ber the first time I watched it, think­ing, ‘I won­der where this is all go­ing to go?’” Jor­gensen says. “Then it’s such a big, emo­tional end­ing, and I think that’s the strength of the story. Once you’ve sat down and in­vested in the life of Ge­orge Bai­ley, you get this huge, emo­tional pay­off.”

Yes, de­spite the dark pe­ri­ods, Ge­orge Bai­ley (played here by Nick Fon­taine) even­tu­ally comes to ap­pre­ci­ate what he does have in­stead of what he doesn’t. And that’s a les­son that’s just as im­por­tant to­day as it was in 1946, when It’s a Won­der­ful Life be­gan its long jour­ney to be­com­ing a hol­i­day clas­sic.

It’s a Won­der­ful Life plays at the Gate­way Theatre from next Thurs­day (De­cem­ber 6) to De­cem­ber 31.

Photo by David Cooper

Erin Aberle-palm and Nick Fon­taine take on the iconic lead roles in It’s a Won­der­ful Life.

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