When the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released just before Christmas, 1946, it didn’t exactly wow ’em at the box office. It lost out in the Best Picture race at the Oscars to “The Best Years of Our Lives.” It was soon overshadowed by another Christmas movie, “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Then it all but disappeared.
But television eventually discovered the movie and “It’s a Wonderful Live” has been a winner ever since.
“TV latched on to it and played it over and over again,” said Greg Miller, who is directing the stage version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Rochester Civic Theatre. “In those days, you were lucky if you had three channels, so you couldn’t help but see the movie.”
Now, Miller and RCT hope you can’t help but see the stage play, which opens Friday. Unlike most recent Christmas-season productions at RCT, this one is not a musical.
“A long time ago, we read the musical and looked at the songs, but we stuck with the play version, which is closer to the movie,” Miller said.
Closer to one of the most popular movies of all time is good. But meeting the expectations of audiences, who know and love that movie’s characters, can be difficult.
“That’s always a hard thing when you take on a show that’s part of the American film lexicon,” Miller said. “We’re not going to have people up there doing impressions of your favorite movie stars.”
Miller has cast Sean Lundberg, frequently seen on the RCT stage, as George Bailey, the everyman hero of Bedford Falls, who initially doubts that he’s any good at all. Denny Schrandt is in the role of Potter, George’s big-business nemesis. Rich Dietman will play Clarence, the angel who shows George that he has done, and will do, a lot of good in the world.
In some ways, the story resembles the ever-popular “A Christmas Carol.” “They’re both fantasy material,” Miller said. “George meets an other-worldly creature who takes him places and shows him things he otherwise wouldn’t see.” Sounds like Scrooge’s experience in “Carol.” “The message is kind of similar, too. If you have the ability, reach out and help someone.”
In the play, Miller said, “George wants to do right by the community. Potter is mean through and through. He’s the opposite of George.”
It’s a story and a moral that has hooked audiences for generations. “It’s an American story,” Miller said. “The little guy can make good. If we all stick together, we can be happy, even if we’re not rich. We all hope to have a George Bailey on our side.”
The play requires multiple sets to recreate the village of Bedford Falls, where the story takes place. There will be snow on the ground, but not falling from above the stage, Miller said. And there is a cast of 27 people on stage.
“It takes a village to do a village,” Miller said.