Just three days in to rehearsal, and Colleen Winton has already been affected by the magic of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Winton, who appears as Ma Bailey in Patrick Street Productions’ musical adaptation of the Christmas classic, was hit hard by the first read- and sing-through by the cast.
“I have to say I was a puddle by the end of it,” she admits.
“Everyone was a little verklempt at least,” agrees fellow cast member Sayer Roberts - who happens to be Winton’s son both in real life and onstage, as he takes on the role of Harry Bailey.
The two are taking time out on a full day of rehearsals at Douglas College to chat about the musical, playing at the Anvil Centre Theatre Dec. 19 to Jan. 5.
Patrick Street’s Peter Jorgensen has adapted the classic Frank Capra screenplay for the stage, weaving in music from the time period – songs by such composers as the Gershwins and Kurt Weill, with arrangements by Nico Rhodes - along with the original dialogue.
It also features Christmas songs such as Carol of the Bells and Angels We Have Heard on High, arranged with lush harmonies and performed by a cast full of strong singers.
“You feel like this fuzzy blanket of Christmas music,” Winton says with a smile, hugging her arms around herself.
But it’s not just music for the sake of music.
“The particular way it’s being told is just exquisite,” Roberts says, noting that Jorgensen has used the music to develop the characters and to elevate the story.
Yes, that story remains the same as the classic 1946 film: George Bailey (played by Nick Fontaine) grapples with life in the small town of Bedford Falls after he gives up his dream of travelling the world in order to run his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan. With a little divine intervention from the angel Clarence (Greg Armstrong-Morris), Bailey discovers what becomes one of the film’s core messages: “No one is a failure who has friends.”
Winton marvels at the fact that Jorgensen, with his “encyclopedic knowledge” of musical theatre, was able to find just the right songs with just the right lyrics to tell the story.
“You could swear they were written for George Bailey’s dilemma,” she says.
Winton cites the song Progress, performed by the character of Mr. Potter (the greedy bank owner who wants to take over the town).
“It’s about money, it’s about politics, it’s about the one per cent,” she says, adding the song still resonates with today’s society. “There were Potters of the world, and there certainly are still Potters of the world. There are always going to be Potters in this world, who always try to make the unholy dollar and don’t worry about the well-being of their community – or the polar ice caps.”
The film’s anti-capitalist message (which made Capra suspect in the eyes of the House Un-American Activities Committee in its hunt for Communists) made it far more than just a warm fuzzy holiday movie in post-war America, Winton notes.
“This film at the time was not Hallmark at all,” she says. “It was going against the powers that be. … It was quite a rebellious idea.”
Roberts adds the stage production, like the movie, is clear about its idea of “success”: that value comes not from money but from family, friends and community.
It’s a message the two say resonates with them, as actors – working in the kind of business where you’re constantly on the hunt for the next opportunity and constantly facing rejection.
Winton points out it can be a challenge to maintain your mental health and your sense of self-worth when you’re always waiting for someone else to say you’re good enough to do the work you’ve done your entire life. So if you’ve gone into acting because you think it will be a glamorous life? You won’t last long, she says.
“It is always a bit of a calling, and it is something that I think, for the people who end up sticking with it, it just fits,” she says. “You feel like you’ve found your home, you’ve found your tribe.”
Roberts agrees. Ever since he found his way to the stage in a New Westminster Secondary School production of Annie in 2008 – he was FDR, by the way – he, too, has found his community in acting.
“There is a natural fit you’re going to find in the community, and in yourself too,” he says, and that’s how it has to be if you’re going to last in the business. “There is so much work around the glitz and the glam.”
Both mother and son are grateful for the chance to perform together – their fourth time to share the stage. They’ve previously appeared together in Annie at Theatre Under the Stars, in Gateway Theatre’s The Sound of Music and in Royal City Musical Theatre’s Hello, Dolly! Next spring and summer they’ll be onstage together again, in the Arts Club Theatre production of Kinky Boots.
Right now, Winton is savouring these moments – this time before opening night when the show is taking shape in the rehearsal room.
“This is the time, that we’re in rehearsal and we’re creating with our colleagues, this room full of talented, generous people … This is where we create the art. This is the gift that we are given.”
Then, soon, will come that moment when they step onstage to present that art to an audience – right in their own hometown, which Winton notes is a privilege professional actors don’t often get.
Winton is particularly thrilled to be coming to the stage in the Anvil Centre Theatre with such a large show – with its cast of 15, a half-dozen musicians and a two-level set, it’s one of the rare times the theatre will house such a big production.
“It’s going to fill that house for sure,” she says.
That it will be filling it with It’s a Wonderful Life – “it’s just such a lovely story, such a great story,” she says – is the icing on the perfect holiday cake.
For Roberts, it’s not so much the knowing that people will love the show – although, he says, they undoubtedly will.
“It’s the knowing I can’t wait to share it with people because I know they are going to leave happy,” he says with a smile. “I know they are going to leave feeling better about themselves.”
CHECK IT OUT
What: It’s a Wonderful Life, a musical stage adaptation by Patrick Street Productions
Who: Starring Nick Fontaine, Erin Palm, Jim Hibbard and Greg Armstrong-Morris
Where: Anvil Centre Theatre, 777 Columbia St. (third floor)
When: Dec. 19 to Jan. 5, with matinees at 2 p.m. (select days) and evening shows at 8 p.m.
Tickets: Starting at $29. Buy through www.ticketstonight.ca.