Arts & Culture

It's a Wonderful Life has something for everyone

By Lorraine Graves

Published 4:24 PST, Thu November 29, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Life, Gateway Theatre’s Christmas offering, has something for everyone, according to lead actor Nick Fontaine.

The black-and-white movie classic has been colourized with living actors and revamped by a Canadian for Canadians with Gershwinesque songs and background music.

With a 10-piece live orchestra and a large cast, the story of George Bailey’s life unfolds.

His youth, his big dreams and the curve balls life throws at him, finally lead to his despair at disappointing those who depended on him. A despair so deep, he wishes he’d never been born. Clarence, a bumbling but well-intentioned angel, who has yet to earn his wings, shows George what his community would have been like without him.

“George is somebody growing up in small-town American with big ideas, big dreams, big plans,” says Nick Fontaine who plays George Bailey. At Gateway, Fontaine last played Carl-Magnus in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

Fontaine talks of the play’s setting: “I can relate, as someone from small town Canada. I’m from Cortes Island, Whaletown. You meet some really beautiful, wonderful people up there, the kinds of people that are in the community. Those little towns really do live and die by the strength of their community.

“And that’s something that makes George Bailey really important; when you see a world that he doesn’t exist in, you are reminded that the community he was keeping healthy really shrivelled and wilted without him around.”

This is not just a theoretical construct for Fontaine.

“Small towns here in B.C. really live and die by their community. They melt away when the people who really had the sweat equity in keeping it running, pass on or move away.”

Fontaine too knows how one person can nurture a community.

“When my adopted grandmother, May Sherwood, retired to Cortes, she immediately started organizing social events. She got on the phone with chamber music quartets from the Lower Mainland to come up and give concerts. It made the winter months so much better. It can be pretty isolated. It was wonderful to have these wonderful little moments of culture.”

When she moved into a home in Campbell River, her absence was felt immediately.

“As soon as May left the island, there was no one to take her place. She had asked for nothing but gave so much. No one’s really filled that gap,” Fontaine says.

And that’s the story of George Bailey, what the world in his small town would be like, had he not been there, to fill the gap, to give so much.

Fontaine says this Gateway production is not a sung script but rather has music and songs in it.

“The songs we have used people will definitely recognize. A lot of them are from lesser-known musicals by the Gershwin brothers and Kurt Weil so, if you are someone who says they don’t like going to musicals, this show will defy your expectations,” says Fontaine.

“The orchestration and arrangements by Nico Rhodes are absolutely stunning. The central motif of the play is Rhapsody in Blue. It’s used in a really intelligent way to bind the scenes together,” he says. The haunting melody, with its blend of bluesy notes and classical style, clearly sets a mood.

“George Bailey’s tale is one of making good the hand you’ve been dealt. Nothing quite turned out as George envisioned it,” says Fontaine.

Under the direction of Peter Jorgensen and with his new musical adaptation, It’s a Wonderful Life promises to be a solid evening’s entertainment. Jorgensen last directed A Little Night Music at Gateway which, like this year’s production, was also with the support of Patrick Street Productions.

This Gateway Christmas production is based both on the original story by Philip Van Doren Stern and the Frank Capra film that followed the short story. Originally, when Stern couldn’t find a publisher for his short story, as an editor and Civil War historian, he self-published it, giving the little book, The Greatest Gift, as a Christmas gift to friends and even his daughter’s teachers. Stern called it “A universal story for all people in all times."

As George Bailey learns, “No man is a failure, who has friends.”

Fontaine adds: “On one hand, it’s a timeless classic that people, who already watch the black-and-white movie every year as a family tradition, are going to love. At the same time, it’s a brand-new musical adaptation written by Canadians. It’s something new and interesting, a world of Canadian theatre wrapped up in a real Christmas classic.”

Gateway Theatre invites us to, “Travel with us to Bedford Falls for a joyous journey that will have you checking for Zuzu’s petals in your own pockets and make you believe that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

It’s a Wonderful Life runs Dec. 6 through 31 at Gateway Theatre with some special performances such as the tea matinee with treats before hand, a talk-back Thursday with cast and crew, Afterplay—a post-performance discussion with other audience members, as well as two performances described by VOCALEYE for audience members who are blind or partially sighted.

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