New traditions: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ |

New traditions: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Diana Dresser, David Ledingham and Tierney Sutton star in the Aspen Theatre in the Park stage version of "It's a Wonderful Life." Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

In the world of the arts, theater is as old school at it gets. Compared to the high-tech production techniques that have taken hold of music, and the digital wizardry that threatens to make screen actors unnecessary, theater tends to stick to the time-tested basics: writing, acting, direction, stage design.And as material goes, it hardly gets more traditional than “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Frank Capra’s 1946 screen classic is a sentimental story of family and angels, small towns and Christmas and the American dream, with its villains and heroes etched in black-and-white.So clearly the idea of presenting a stage version of the 58-year-old tale in the century-old Wheeler Opera House during the winter holidays appealed to the nostalgic side of theater veteran David McClendon.Not exactly. McClendon, who will direct “It’s a Wonderful Life” for Aspen Theatre in the Park, says that the first thing to get him excited about the production were the cutting-edge possibilities.

“One of the things that moved me toward it was, how to merge parts of the film with the live production,” said McClendon, who became ATIP’s artistic director in time for this past summer’s season under the ATIP tent. “I met with my designers, and with the technology that we have now, they were able to pull in what I wanted.”I do love technology.”McClendon’s embrace of modern flourishes will be apparent as soon as the screen opens. ATIP’s production uses the opening credits of Capra’s version, with the names presented on the turning pages of a book, with the cast and crew’s names substituted for the originals. The scene of the angels, represented by twinkling stars, looking down on forlorn banker George Bailey, is re-created from the original footage. Throughout the play, screens on the side of the stage will feature images from the film: the house where the Baileys of Bedford Falls live, the Building & Loan that George runs and nearly loses.That ATIP can use such visual images is interwoven with the iconic status of Capra’s film. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a smash on arrival; it earned five Academy Award nominations, including best picture and James Stewart as best actor for his portrayal of the back-from-the-brink banker George Bailey. (“It’s a Wonderful Life” lost in the major categories to William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.”)

Despite the success, in 1974, RKO, the studio which had produced the film, failed to renew its rights. One of the most widely appealing films became part of the public domain. No one had to pay to show the film, and the night-after-night broadcasts etched George Bailey, Clarence the angel, Mr. Potter and “eee-yaw!” into the American consciousness.That is the other side that appeals to McClendon – that “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been seen by successive generations. “It became part of our Thanksgiving weekend,” noted McClendon, who became familiar with James Rodgers’ stage adaptation years ago, when he was working at the Cleveland Playhouse, which had produced a musical version. “It’s a part of all of us.”McClendon also appreciates the universality of the movie. We all can – and have – put ourselves in the shoes of George Bailey, looking at what life would have been had he never existed.”We look at the people who inhabit that story and we see ourselves,” said McClendon. “It’s true breathing. We all have those times, when we look at ourselves, and how we do indeed affect other people. When we think we’re insignificant and unimportant – if we pause to think, what happens if we weren’t there, it makes us see how important our relationships are.”

The iconic nature of the film can be a stumbling block to fresh interpretations. But McClendon applauds David Ledingham, an Aspen product now living in New York, for his handling of the part of George. (The cast also features Denver’s Diana Dresser as Mary Bailey, Carbondale’s Bob Moore as Clarence, and Theatre in the Park founder Kent Reed as Mr. Potter. Sets are by Tom Ward, costumes by Dave Samuelson and video projection by Tom Wardaszka.)McClendon expects ATIP’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” to become as much of a holiday fixture in Aspen as the Capra film and fur-coated tourists. The plan is to make it an annual event.”We want to make it a holiday tradition at the Wheeler,” he said. “Hopefully it will last long after I’m gone.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


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