Florida Rep turns holiday classic into a staged radio play, with a new layer of story

Video from YouTube
Video from YouTube
Video from YouTube

IF YOU GO

What: Frank Capra's classic film, presented as a radio drama

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Dec. 18

Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers

Cost: $40 & $45; four-ticket $99 family packs available

Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org

Something else: Arrive at least a half-hour early for the elaborate pre-show; performance is 90 minutes, no intermission

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Florida Repertory Theater's founder and veteran director Robert Cacioppo received his holiday mail early this year: 3,300 resumes from actors and actresses hoping to land one of the five roles in his production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." The play is onstage through Sunday in downtown Fort Myers.

Few Americans don't know the story of the small-town banker who becomes the project of a nascent angel hoping to win his wings.

For the lead role of George Bailey, played onscreen by Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 Frank Capra classic, Cacioppo selected 37-year-old Chris Kipiniak from the New York City auditions. He brings a Broadway pedigree to Southwest Florida, including a role in the ensemble cast of "Metamorphoses," which captured a 2002 Tony Award for best director. If he looks slightly familiar, it may be from his TV appearances on " Law and Order."

However, Kipiniak isn't only playing Bailey in this story. In the Joe Landry scrips, Kipiniak plays the role of Jake Laurents, a radio actor reading George Bailey's lines in a 1946-era radio studio on Christmas Eve.

The Florida Rep production "relies much more on sounds and dialogue" than the 65-year-old movie, according to Kipiniak, "but the themes don't really date the show. A lot of the economic issues are evergreen — the philosophical divide between pursuing short-term individual wealth and doing something that might harm the community as a whole. In today's economy, people are having to make those same choices all the time."

The beloved tale, inspired by Philip Van Doren Stern's story titled "The Greatest Gift," centers around Bailey, who reluctantly inherits his late father's building and loan in the small town of Bedford Falls. His constant nemesis is an American Scrooge, who is  angling to get the shareholders' stake in the building and loan for 50 cents on the dollar when a financial crisis looms.

It's an uphill struggle, and Bailey comes to such despair that he is determined to end his life. But he is plucked from the depths by his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, sent to earth in human form to save Bailey, and, in the process, earns his own angel wings.

Since the story has passed into the public domain, it has spawned several stage plays; this one an unusual telling of it from the perspective of  actors playing its roles.

"The mission for me in this show was, first, to honor the film, and second, to be true to creating a 1946 radio show," Cacioppo said. "I fought very hard to avoid being corny or extra sweet. I told the cast, 'This piece is maple syrup. We don't want to add a pound of sugar to it.'

"We did a lot of research on how live radio plays were produced during the era before television. It was important to me that the show run exactly 90 minutes, not a minute more or less, because that's the way it was done. The audience for our play becomes the audience for the live radio show.

"Back in those days, it was a big event. We created a little singing group to sing vintage commercials for Pepsi-Cola and Chiquita bananas," Cacioppo said. "So a half-hour before curtain time, they're in the house rehearsing their jingles with the piano player."

Playgoers who are in the habit of settling into their seats five minutes before curtain time will miss a chance to roll reality back more than 50 years as the house bubbles with activity before the radio play begins.

"We have telegram boys in authentic vintage costumes, calling out names of several audience members who receive authentic-looking Western Union telegrams. The actors enter through the audience wearing suits and furs, and we even have a reporter wearing a trench coat and a fedora and three teenage girls who go running over to Chris, as Jake Laurents, screaming and waving their autograph books."

About 29 minutes before showtime, actor Mark Chambers arrives onstage, carrying two suitcases stuffed with the paraphernalia he uses to create the radio show's sound effects — bells, bottles, ringers — everything he needs to make his noises.

"Normally five people cover all the roles, but I wanted to expand it, so I asked Mark Chambers, a gifted actor and comedian, to make the show's Foley artist a sixth character," Cacioppo explained.

Foley artists were as important as actors in the age of live radio comedy and drama. The name is a tribute to the pioneering techniques of Jack Foley. They are still used in movie productions.

 Chambers must have precise timing to make the sound effects work, and he's added his own comic touches, naming his character after Melvin Swabbington, a real-life second-grade classmate. At one point in the production, Melvin removes his porkpie hat to reveal he's been wearing a yarmulke the whole time.

 "I thought it would be easy — all I needed to do was get up, go to the microphone, say my lines, then sit back down," Kipiniak said of his own George-Jake role.

Instead, he found that "It's such a journey the character goes through. The emotional pitch is quite high in all the scenes, and we span a lot of time, so actually I do end up finding it a lot more exhausting. Even though, physically, I don't go through that much, I feel completely drained. But it's exhilarating too."

Cacioppo has his own true-life model for George Bailey: his father, who died in February at age 93.

"He was the most honest man I know. He was so good, and was really about putting his family first. He never had any wealth, never owned a home, but he was the best man at 12 weddings!

"I don't think he ever had that 'George Bailey moment' when he suddenly realized how much he was loved by so many people. But he was a wonderful husband, father, and friend. He had a wonderful life."

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