A Christmas favorite takes the stage

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ opens Dec. 9 in Eagle River


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Art Braendel, left, as Uncle Billy, talks with Mike Barsalou, who plays George Bailey, in the upcoming Alaska Fine Arts Academy production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” during a rehearsal on Dec. 5 in Eagle River. The play opens tomorrow and runs through Dec. 17.

STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

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Facing a world he figures will be better without him in it, George Bailey decides it’s time to end his life.

If you’re familiar with Frank Capra’s classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” you know what happens next. But knowing what happens in the Christmastime favorite doesn’t keep millions from tuning into the black-and-white film each year, and it likely won’t keep large crowds from showing up when the Alaska Fine Arts Academy brings James Rogers’ stage adaptation to Eagle River for a six-show run that begins Friday, Dec. 9.

“We typically sell out every one of our Christmas shows,” said the play’s director, Bob Croley.

Croley said the stage version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is faithful to the screen version — with a few twists.

“We can’t break through the ice,” Croley joked, referring to a scene where George rescues his brother from a childhood accident.

But, he said, anyone who has grown to love the original story should be pleased with AFA’s adaptation.

“We’re doing our best to hold true to Capra’s vision as much as possible,” he said.

Croley said the cast and crew are a mix of veteran performers and newcomers to the stage, which he said has brought a fresh dynamic to rehearsals.

“They’re working wonderfully together,” he said.

He said the cast and crew for this production includes about 26 actors, 12 crew members and another 20 or so support personnel helping out.

“There’s about 60 people when it’s all said and done,” he said.

The play debuts at 7 p.m. Friday night. Croley plans two shows on Saturday, Dec. 10, with a matinee at 2 p.m. and another 7 p.m. showing. Next week’s shows include performances on Dec. 15, 16 and 17, all at 7 p.m.

As of Monday, Dec. 5, Croley said he was cautiously optimistic about everything coming together for opening night.

“There’s always the last-minute crazies, but we’re getting there,” he said.

Mike Barsalou plays George Bailey, the down-on-his-luck building and loan manager whose decision to commit suicide for the insurance money is the play’s jumping-off point.

Barsalou said he’s always been a fan of the original movie, and was thrilled to learn he’d won the role made famous by Jimmy Stewart.

“It’s a real honor to be in that role,” he said.

Barsalou said even if you’ve seen the movie version of the play a hundred times (as many have), the play’s theme of redemption should still appeal to fans of the family-friendly original.

“We’ve done it justice, but we’ve added our own spice to it,” he said.

John Steiner, who plays the villainous Mr. Potter, said the play will also give folks from the Chugiak-Eagle River community a chance to see some of their friends and neighbors cast in a different light.

“In every show we always have some very powerful performances,” Steiner said.

Steiner — who recently returned to the stage after spending much of his time as Anchorage School Board president — will be performing alongside his daughter, Megan Morse. Steiner said part of the joy of community theater lies in the intimate relationship between the audience and the actors.

“Live theater is just a different experience,” he said.

Bob Croley said the play is perfect for Christmas audiences because it reinforces the idea that people play an important role in the lives of others.

“This is a very important show in that respect,” he said. “This is a show about self worth and a person’s role in his community.”

He said that the story is a great example of just how much impact an individual life can have.

“It’s invisible to us how important we are in each other’s lives,” he said. “This gives us a chance to reflect on that.”

 

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com

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