MORGANTOWN — For this season’s holiday offering, West Virginia Public Theatre (WVPT) will re-imagine the classic Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the stage. The show debuts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the WVU Creative Arts Center, with more performances set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and Dec. 20 and 2 p.m. Sunday.
“There’s a musical version and there’s one that gets done as a radio play, but we did an adaptation ourselves,” said Jerry McGonigle, WVPT’s artistic director, who is also directing the production. “You’ve got the challenge of honoring the source material, which everyone loves, but not falling into the trap of trying to imitate it.”
Based on the short story, “The Greatest Gift,” written by Philip Van Doren Stem in 1939 and published in 1945, the Oscar-nominated film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a distraught man who wishes on Christmas Eve that he’d never been born. When his guardian angel grants George’s wish, the consequences are devastating.
McGonigle said WVPT’s interpretation hews closely to the story audiences know, capitalizing on the fact that most of the film is essentially a flashback.
“When talking with the designer, I mentioned the idea of taking a snow globe, shaking it up and letting it happen. We don’t have hardcore, realistic scenery,” he said. “It’s a beautifully stylized depiction of Bedford Falls. The scenes cross-fade into one another, which we do with a lot of moving, intersecting scenery. And we have a few tricks and surprises along the way. It’s going to be a technically intricate show.”
Members of the cast have made their way from the likes of Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. While some are WVU alum and former professors, all are professional actors.
“We’ve got a really great group of actors,” McGonigle said. “If anything, the only issue we’re having is that everyone is having too much fun.”
He envisions “It’s a Wonderful Life” as part of a group of productions WVPT will keep in rotation for its holiday show in coming years, along with the more traditional “A Christmas Carol.”
“We’ve created the set, so that it’s built to store,” he said.
Like the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, McGonigle said, “George becomes a new human because he sees how he’s affected people and that ultimately saves him.”
He adds such tales of redemption a perfect for a season when we’re encouraged to unite and give to others.
“That’s a core part of the holidays,” McGonigle said. “The goodwill, realizing that we’re all equal, so it’s something that I’m proud to present to the community. And it’s reflective of our mission at WVPT — that we want to give something of worth to West Virginia and Morgantown. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together.”
As part of that mission, the nonprofit has partnered with the Tickets for Kids Charities, receiving enough donations to give roughly 100 children tickets to the show that they couldn’t otherwise afford.
“We’ve also worked to keep ticket prices low,” he said of the $13-$21 price point for “It’s Wonderful Life.” “When we first started, prices were way too high. You shouldn’t have to spend $60 for a Christmas story.”
And in addition to keeping costs reasonable, he said WVPT also aims to offer shows worth seeing.
“With this, I wanted to make sure the community had a title that attracted them but is also something that once they see it, they didn’t expect. We want this to be a special experience for everyone.”
- West Virginia Public Theatre will present “It’s a Wonderful Life” at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Wednesday-Dec. 20, and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the WVU Creative Arts Center. Tickets cost $13-21 and are available wvpublictheatre.org/tickets, at the Mountainlair and CAC box offices, or by calling 304-293-SHOW (7469). Group rates are available by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.