A live ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ from Hudson Reed Ensemble

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Ellen Stapenhorst, Sarah Stevens and Kathy Pelowski perfrom as The Andrews Sisters during the interludes of Hudson Reed Ensemble's "It's A Wonderful Life."
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ presented by Hudson Reed Ensemble

When: Friday, Dec. 12 and Saturday, Dec. 13, 7 p.m. in Aspen; Sunday, Dec. 14, 5:30 p.m. in Basalt

Where: Aspen Community Church and Basalt Regional Library

Cost: Free

More info:

There are few Christmas traditions more embedded in American life than watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After years of seemingly endless repetition on television — and a few select annual broadcasts since the late 1990s — Frank Capra’s 1946 classic about a man on the brink who finds his way with the help of a bumbling Christmas angel is as much a part of the season as stockings and mistletoe.

Kent Reed is hoping to start a holiday tradition Aspen can call its own, with some help from the treasured film. His theater company, the Hudson Reed Ensemble, is hosting its second annual Free Holiday Show this weekend in Aspen and Basalt, with readings of a radio play based on “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Last year, in its first free holiday show, Reed’s company staged readings of classic Christmas stories by O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote and others at Aspen Community Church. A few months later, Reed stumbled on the “It’s a Wonderful Life” radio play and devised a unique night blending the Christmas and nostalgia.

“I think it’s going to be pretty effective and affecting,” said Reed, who directs the show. “It’s a sentimental play, and it deals with themes that I think are important around Christmas.”

The company is reenacting the experience of listening to a 1940s radio broadcast, including the use of an announcer (Kimberly Rehfuss), sound effects, commercial jingles and interludes of song. It’s a live reading, not a full production such as the one staged a decade ago at the Wheeler Opera House by Theatre Aspen.

Twelve local actors will lend their voices to create 33 different characters. Aspen Times columnist Todd Hartley plays George Bailey, the role immortalized by Jimmy Stewart in the original, with Kathy Pelowski as his wife Mary, and Willie Mosely as the angel Clarence. Nina Gabianelli, Shelly Marolt and Lee Reed each tackle five roles apiece.

Complementing the cast of dramatic readers, local singers Ellen Stapenhorst, Sarah Stevens and Kathy Pelowski will perform as The Andrews Sisters, singing ’40s era songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and commercial jingles for products like soap and hair cream, along with holiday classics such as “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

The abridged radio play runs shorter than the film — coming in at about 1 hour and 15 minutes — but Reed said the cherished lines like “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings,” “To my big brother George, the richest man in town,” “Zuzu’s petals!” and such have remained in tact.

Along with the familiar dialogue, the radio play includes 80-plus sound cues. The film was adapted into the radio play by Tony Palermo, a Los Angeles sound editor, which enhances the play’s mix of spoken word and sound effects. Reed and his cast spent five days rehearsing it all, splitting their time between the Rio Grande Room and the Aspen Club.

“It’s pretty complicated, and it’s new ground for all of us with the sound effects and all,” Reed said.

If it goes over well, Reed said, he’d like to make the “It’s a Wonderful Life” reading an annual tradition for Aspen.

“It’s definitely a family show,” he said. “It’s a sweet, universal story of someone who is struggling and who triumphs over it with the help of his family and friends.”

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