Bondo Wyszpolski

Surf City Theatre dips into the 1940s

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The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” Front: Michael Hovance and Geoff Lloyd; rear: Jonni Swenson, Michael Thorpe, and Morgan Hill. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

And, after all is said and done…

Surf City Theatre’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” opens Saturday in Hermosa Beach

by Bondo Wyszpolski

What classic holiday film screens year after year, and yet always finds a devoted audience? Well, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” of course, which takes place on Christmas Eve, 1946, and stars James Stewart as George Bailey. He’s a somewhat older man who’s always meant well and done the best he can, but now he’s tired and ready to throw in the towel. And so an angel pays him a visit and points out how much poorer his friends and family and community would have been had George never existed.

When Joe Landry adapted the film for the stage he recast it as a live, in-studio radio broadcast, also set in the 1940s. “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” has not only proved successful, but also is widely performed at this time of the year. Surf City Theatre Company is presenting their take on it for three weekends in the Second Story Theatre, Hermosa Beach. Director Paula Kelley and actors Michael Hovance and Michael Thorpe shared their thoughts about the show a few days before Saturday’s opening.

Karen Hill, left, with director Paula Kelley. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

READY TO TIME TRAVEL?

“The message of the story is timeless,” says Paula Kelley. “I think everyone can relate in some way. The love and devotion to family, the unexpected sacrifices that must be made, the frustration of not living your dream, but in the end knowing that your life is exactly what it should be. And, it’s a wonderful life after all.”

Kelley is originally from Boston, where she did theater and sang in a rock band called FarrenHeit. She lives in Redondo Beach and is the artistic director of The Notables, a local singing troupe.

“I moved out here to pursue music,” she says. “I never lost my love for acting and got involved in doing theater locally. I am now concentrating mostly on television and film.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t Kelley’s first show with Surf City Theatre.

“I have performed in last year’s Christmas production, ‘The Christmas Spirit.’ I have wanted to direct a scripted show for awhile now and loved the idea of directing this radio show. The story itself is beloved and is pretty much synonymous with Christmas, but the way this story is told with the sound effects and the audience participation will, I think, make it fun and more intimate.”

Geoff Lloyd. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Kelley admits that until recently she’d only seen fragments of the movie.

“Reading the script was my first time getting the story from beginning to end, along with a couple of radio commercials thrown in! I did watch the movie, however, before I started production.”

She also hadn’t seen it staged live but, she explains, “I generally do not like to be influenced by other performances be it whether I am acting or directing.” Nonetheless, “One thing I hope to do is transport everyone back to the 1940s. Not only with our set design and costumes, but also with Lisa’s wonderful vintage lobby decorations and even costuming our volunteers in some way to reflect the era. We encourage our audience to feel free to dress in the time period, too! The audience is important as this is ‘live radio in front of an audience’!

Michael Hovance and Michael Thorpe, with Jonni Swenson in back. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

ONE ACTOR, MANY CHARACTERS

Michael Hovance is originally from Maine, but moved to North Redondo a few years back. He went to Sarah Lawrence College and spent a year in London at the British American Drama Academy. This is his first show with Surf City Theatre.

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was one of my favorite movies growing up,” he says. “I really enjoy Frank Capra films, and other films of the era. I play a lot of characters in our production, and for my various voices I drew on and was strongly inspired by actors of the time. Most of my characters (each actor voices several parts) are inspired directly by actors and personalities from the 1940s. Watching a lot of newsreels helped me develop the voice of the announcer.”

Hovance was intrigued by the whole process:

“Here I am, playing a radio host and actor named Freddie Filmore, who within the radio play of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ plays all these other characters, many of whom have scenes with each other. So I had to keep in mind that I’m not only playing the internal radio play characters, but it’s Freddie Filmore playing the internal radio play characters.” Furthermore, he adds, “I have to make the characters distinct enough that when they are speaking to each other it is clear who is talking.” And that, for Hovance, has been the biggest challenge.

Morgan Hill and Jonni Swenson. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

AND A FEAST FOR THE EARS

When it came to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Michael Thorpe had the inside track:

“I’ve been Surf City’s technical director for two years now,” he says, “so I found out about the show over a year ago. I was then asked to be assistant/backup director for the show, so in the auditions I was the reader who was doing all the other voices (male and female) for each individual auditioner.

“Apparently I was doing a really good job with that as they decided to move me from crew into cast. That being said, I’m still the TD for this show so I’m also doing lights and sound and most of the props; it’s a lot of work.”

Thorpe was born in Manhattan Beach, moved to Hermosa after college, and now resides in Redondo.

Local theatergoers saw him most recently in Surf City’s “A Few Good Men” and, before that, “Wait Until Dark.”

As the company’s technical director, it’s not too surprising to learn what most attracts him and interests him about “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“This show is definitely about the sound effects. It’s a good story with a good cast, and it should move people. But at the end of the day, I think the most effective part of this show is transporting the audience back in time and doing all the sound effects live.”

And, who knows, when we walk out of the theater we may even have forgotten what year it is.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play opens Saturday evening at 8 p.m. in the Second Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Additional performances, through Sunday, Dec. 3, are Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets, $28. Call (424) 241-8040, email surfcitytheatre@gmail.com, or go to surfcitytheatre.com. ER

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