THEATER | “It’s a Wonderful Life” indeed at the Saint Paul Hotel


Yes, reader, it’s true: I’ve somehow made it through 36 Christmases without seeing the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. I knew the general idea, but the story was essentially new to me as I settled in Friday night at a table in the Promenade Ballroom at the Saint Paul Hotel.

The hotel’s annual production takes the form of a radio play—not actually broadcast, but enacted onstage while dinner is served. In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation of the 1946 movie, it’s 1948 and the beloved story is being told to a radio audience. Preceding the show is a cocktail hour and several Christmas carols performed by the company.

I was charmed and actually quite moved by the performers’ spirited, polished telling of the tale of George Bailey (Philip Callen), the small-town boy who’s kind to a fault. The stakes are high for radio plays staged in the home town of A Prairie Home Companion, and this Wonderful Life doesn’t have such diversely talented performers (or Garrison Keillor, or Jimmy Stewart), but it has a lot of heart. From Kevin Dutcher’s aspiring angel to Adena Brumer’s patient sweetheart, every actor is completely convincing. Most importantly, they all seem to be having a lot of fun, which encourages the audience to do likewise.

At $75 for dinnertime showings, It’s a Wonderful Life is not a cheap ticket (lunchtime shows are $55), but for families who budget for a fancy holiday theater outing and have already done the Christmas Carol thing, I’d strongly recommend considering this show—or, if you have young children, Fezziwig’s Feast. (The latter show is a bigger production and also an excellent show, but it’s worth noting that the food is definitely better at the Saint Paul Hotel.)

This Wonderful Life left me with a warm and fuzzy holiday feeling, enhanced by the cozy atmosphere and the nice touches like reading “radiograms” from the audience. I expected that post-intermission ritual to be tedious, but in fact it was one of the highlights of the evening: one table was in amusingly apparent disagreement as to exactly which anniversary they were there to celebrate, and couples waxed poetic in their public paeans to one another. “After 15 years,” said one husband in a message to his wife, “you still jingle my bells.”

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

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