One of the great ironies of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the despairing context in which George Bailey’s guardian angel paraphrases the titular optimistic phrase in the climax of the film: George is desperately digging away the snow from his dead brother’s grave because George wasn’t there to save him from a drowning accident, and George also learns that the men that his brother saved during World War II are dead as well. It is a horrifying moment, made all the more so by Dmitri Tiomkin’s haunting yet subtle score. If “Life” were going to be made into a musical, then too bad that Tiomkin never wrote the music, because the music to this 1989 version is serviceable, but forgettable, and far too “wonderful” in its ethos. That said, the lyrics to the songs work well by and large, particularly as the hopes and joys of the various characters are introduced song by song, and the stellar cast of Porchlight Music Theatre’s production brings them off beautifully, particularly Jayson Brooks’ George Bailey, who gives the character such a unique spin that you almost forget James Stewart’s iconic stuttering. It all works quite nicely until George’s suicide attempt, and then things get bizarrely operatic with characters bursting into song during what should be the show’s darkest moments. It reminded me of Leonard Bernstein admitting that he tried and tried to set Maria’s climactic indictment speech with the gun to music in “West Side Story,” but it just wouldn’t work. But lovers of the classic film will still find plenty to feast on, and a whole new imaginative take on characters that you thought you knew are given a new, if sometimes overexuberant, lease on “life.” (Dennis Polkow)
At the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 West Belmont, (773)327-5252. This production is now closed.