ATIP’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ sure to be a wonderful tradition |

ATIP’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ sure to be a wonderful tradition

Stewart Oksenhorn
Diana Dresser and David Ledingham starred as Mary Bailey and George in Aspen Theatre in the Parks rendition of Its a Wonderful Life. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

On a frigid winter night, two days before Christmas Eve, the perfect family activity would have been to curl up in front of the tube and watch the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”Aspenites, however, had an even better option: Aspen Theatre in the Park’s stage version of Frank Capra’s 1946 film.

How do you improve on such a classic? One way that David McClendon, artistic director of ATIP and director of its version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” might answer the question is, you don’t. The ATIP production, from James Rodgers’ adaptation of Capra’s film, was remarkably faithful to the original. Throughout the performance Tuesday night at the Wheeler Opera House, you could hear audience members whispering along with such lines as “Hee-Yaw!” and “Buffalo girls won’t you come out tonight.” The lack of tinkering proved a smart move: Capra’s story of George Bailey, an honorable man who gets to see what life would have been like without him, tugs just right at all the emotional strings. And with a talented cast featuring David Ledingham as George, Diana Dresser as Mary Bailey and ATIP founder Kent Reed returning to play the sinister Mr. Potter, McClendon didn’t need to pull tricks to sidestep or augment the sentimentality of the original.

At the same time, McClendon and his technical crew – set designer Tom Ward and video imaging designer Tom Wardaszka – used current technology not to update the story, but to merge the film and stage productions. Two video screens hovering unobtrusively above the stage showed genuine images from the film: the Bailey house, the Bedford Falls Building and Loan, the Pottersville of George’s alternate reality. Such grainy black-and-white images transported the audience back to the film’s World War II-era setting, disguising the high-tech nature of the visual trick.And McClendon was wise not to go heavy on the gadgetry. Apart from a few opening minutes, to tip off the potential of the available technology, the video screens were used only for projecting still images. The attention was thus on the marvelous cast, bringing to life – real life – a story that still manages to move us to tears.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” closed with yesterday’s performances, but take note. ATIP plans, in the style of the original film, to make “It’s a Wonderful Life” an annual happening in Aspen’s holiday season.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is