Before streaming and podcasts, compelling stories were told over the radio.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” captures a live radio broadcast while sharing a Christmas classic with audiences in different way.
Saguaro City Music Theatre will mark its first production with “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” from Friday, Dec. 9 to Saturday, Dec. 24 at the Berger Performing Arts Center.
Led by executive director Charlie Ingram, artistic director Drew Humphrey and director of outreach and education Dena DiGiacinto, Saguaro City Music Theatre boasts 60 years of combined professional theater experience.
The radio play is being directed by Humphrey, who grew up in Tucson and attended UA before moving to New York to pursue a career as a director, choreographer and performer.
The radio show takes place in New York in 1946 and tells the story of Bedford Falls savings and loan officer George, his wife Mary and their children.
The show, which draws from Frank Capra’s 1946 film and Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift,” was adapted by Joe Landry.
It shares a similar message as the film about the power of goodwill and community and the importance of human connections. DiGiacinto said the ideals in the show fit with Saguaro City’s mission.
Humphrey has a personal connection to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is his favorite Christmas movie.
“I love watching it every year, go on that journey with George Bailey and find myself a blubbering mess at that end. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s exciting to work on this piece,” Humphrey said.
DiGiacinto said the radio broadcast has a similar format as “Live from Here,” a radio variety show once known as “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“You see the special guests come on and off, and they set up different things. There’s always so much going on,” DiGiacinto said. “It’s cool to see it in front of your eyes and visualize the chaos that goes on to get from one segment to another.”
“It’s designed to be performed for the audience in the seats. It’s as if they are being whisked back to Christmas Eve 1946 to watch a live broadcast,” Humphrey said.
The production will have six actors voicing 51 roles. DiGiacinto said during rehearsals, it was important to find actors who could portray multiple characters. One actor has to jump between four voices in one scene.
“Those characters are having a conversation with each other. Finding the actor that is able to color all of those voices and switch between them effortlessly and instantly was a major part of finding an actor to play that role,” Humphrey said.
“The actor who plays Harry does such an incredible job making it clear who’s who with different accents and tones of his voice. It’s just really impressive,” DiGiacinto said.
Only two actors, who portray the George and Mary, will be voicing one character each.
George will be played by actor James Kelley Carroll from UA. Samantha Beemer, a Pima Community College student, is Mary. She was recently featured in SAPAC’s production of “Fun Home.”
The radio play has a show within a show feel.
This means that actors will be part of the radio show and the story of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Stewart Gregory, for example, will play radio host Freddie Filmore in the broadcast and Mr. Potter and Joseph in the play.
The show will also have a jingle singer, who will perform in a 1940s style.
Humphrey designed an original jingle for the show, which is used for the radio station.
Music has been added to the show, in the background during the radio play and during the “commercial breaks.” It is a combination of jazz standards and classic holiday songs.
Matt Marcus, a sound designer and live foley artist, will be creating sound effects during the broadcast.
“He is lending his expertise on how do you make a wind machine? How do you make wind out of props that they would have used in 1946? Or how would we break glass over and over again and not have glass shattered onstage? All of these things we have to figure out how to achieve with props you would find in 1946 and be able to produce these sounds live for the audience,” Humphrey said.
DiGiacinto said they tried to feature local actors and creatives as well as talented individuals from cities such as New York. This is the formula they plan to use going forward.
“Coming from our background in theater, we both spent a couple of decades in New York City, working professionally in the theater business. We had a lot of fortunate opportunities to perform with regional companies that belonged to the community. We like the idea of bringing something like that, a musical theater company in Tucson that the community can really be a part of and have ownership of,” DiGiacinto said.
The company will offer a space where graduates from the UA and local community colleges can apply their knowledge and skills.
Humphrey said it will also be important to bring in creatives from around the nation to expose local audiences to their talents.
“When I was a kid in Tucson, there was a company that brought in out-of-town talent from New York, LA and Chicago and out-of-town designers. That was what inspired me to go and pursue the career that I enjoy,” Humphrey said.
“That is the biggest part of our mission is to hire local and also find a way to outreach to professional actors or designers out of New York or LA and bring them into our community so that we can all benefit from it.”
The sets in the show were created by a designer from New York, and they are being built by local artisans.
The set incorporates a Bedford Falls billboard, which Humphrey said helps transport viewers to another time and place.
The creative team captured the time period with little details, such as the vintage Christmas bulbs used in the show.
“In order to allow the audience to be transported back to 1946, those details really matter,” Humphrey said. “The time period is just as special as the quality of the story.”
Although the theater component is new, the company has already been engaging the community as part of its educational branch, Saguaro City Studio Arts.
Through this program, they provide tuition-free, inclusive education to people of all ability levels, including young people and adults with special needs.
The company has offered theater education to 100 students so far.
The upcoming show will feature a children’s ensemble, which includes students from the educational program. They will be portraying youth choir members.
“They’ll be singing some Christmas songs and entertaining the audience during some of the commercial breaks,” DiGiacinto said.
The founders plan for the theater and educational components to work together.
“We are here to provide top-tier musical theater entertainment and create an environment and expectation where the kids from our educational arm can aspire and see that there is a space for them onstage,” Humphrey said.
The company plans to partner with local nonprofits and creative organizations. For the show, they are working with the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Tucson Jazz Festival and Kids Unlimited.
The organizations will receive a ticket code, which will get their supporters a discount, and $5 of these tickets’ value will be donated to the organizations.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”
WHEN: Various times Friday, Dec. 9 to Saturday, Dec. 24
WHERE: Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Boulevard, Tucson
COST: Tickets start at $25