I love high school theatre. I love seeing the kids up on the stage indulging in that ultimate fantasy: to become, for just a couple hours, an entirely different person and live that person’s life, speak that person’s words and feel — and emote — that person’s emotions.
The more students I see populating a stage, the more I love the show because it means all the more young people being exposed to one of the most embracing of the performing arts. Each of them, no matter how seemingly small the role, knows their character is an integral part of the story and has made the decision to commit himself or herself to the success of the evening. And such is the case with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the beloved Frank Capra film unfolding in real life on the Pear Tyner Auditorium stage at Crestview High School.
Director and drama teacher Annette Gebhardt has assembled a likable, enthusiastic cast of 43 students, ranging in age from middle school to kids from her own high school classes. Together the youthful performers become the population of Bedford Falls and share in the telling of the story of George Bailey as he approaches the most critical night of his life.
The minimalist streetscape set — whether intentional or not — effectively turned the focus of the performance almost exclusively on the young performers and their story, and was far more effective than had every store’s façade been rendered in minute detail.
Many of the young thespians who appear in the play are old friends from previous productions. It’s always fun to see them mature as actors before many of them, bitten by the stage bug, move on to major in theatre in college. But in this early stage of their careers, it’s a rare treat indeed when a couple suddenly find that magic whatsis and make the transition from kid-acting-a-part to actor-being-a-character.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that has happened to Ryan Vance, who plays George Bailey, and Brittany Agee, who plays his longtime girlfriend and then wife, Mary Hatch Bailey. Somewhere, shortly after the curtain opened on Act II, I was no longer watching another enjoyable performance by Ryan and Brittany. I was watching George and Mary’s soap opera of a life, and both young performers are to be commended for making that critical leap into actorhood.
There were other standouts in the show that contributed to the large audience’s enjoyment of the familiar holiday favorite. Mac Sticha as the angel (second class, sans wings) Clarence Odbody and his brother, Zac Sticha, as Uncle Billy both played critical roles and ably plunged into their parts. While one can’t help but compare their performances to those of Henry Travers and Thomas Mitchell in the 1946 film, it was satisfying to see the boys making a conscientious effort to interpret the characters in their own way, just as Ryan and Brittany divorced themselves from James Stewart and Donna Reed’s performances.
Other standouts included Briana Schiro as Violet Peterson, Courtney Jones as Aunt Tilly, Jonathan Baughman as Mr. Potter, and Alex Andrews and Jeff Linares as Bert and Ernie. It was great to see the quartet of youngsters playing George and Mary’s kids — Abby Keiffer, Ty Gebhardt, Vince Lancaster and Emily Keiffer — adding a bit of age appropriateness to the roles. As much as I willingly suspend reality when attending student productions, it’s always toughest trying to reconcile a high school student portraying a young ‘un against his peers.
Kudos to Gebhardt for not just adding this enjoyable touch, but also for giving younger kids a taste of the footlights. With her daughter Madeline as assistant director, Bridget Worth as tech director and a tech crew list as long as the cast list (including a couple guys manhandling the Frankensteinian light cage: won’t some wealthy alumnus please donate some decent tech equipment for these stellar productions?), “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a wonderful evening of local theatre.
How wonderful? I got sniffy and teary-eyed at the warmhearted ending. That means everybody on the stage was doing their job.