Studio Tenn breathes wonderful new life into Christmas tradition

The season to enjoy Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” comes but once a year. The chance to experience such a masterful live rendering as Studio Tenn’s current production, however, is much rarer. 

On stage in Jamison Hall at The Factory, the show runs through Dec. 21. Tickets are available at

For those who haven’t yet seen a performance in the company’s new venue, Studio Tenn’s elegant transformation of Jamison Hall is worth mentioning:

Luxe floor-to-ceiling black velvet curtains encase the remarkably intimate thrust theatre, with comfortable stadium seating surrounding the stage on three sides. The artful blocking and choreography in this show is dutifully conscious of playing to the whole audience.

This expanded dimensionality is just one storytelling advantage the live production has right off the bat. Another is color, and both are exploited to a profound degree by the expert design of artistic director Matt Logan. 

The set is a collage of nostalgic architectural elements--crowned with a “You are Now In Bedford Falls” sign—seemingly suspended in a backdrop of deep, magnificent blue, which variously imbues mystique to the celestial ether where prayers gather, melancholy to George’s laments, and romance to a certain moonlit night. 

Logan’s “Wonderful Life” is ’40s through and through, thanks to painstaking attention to vintage props and exquisite costuming, including period suits by Jeff Loring of Green Hills’ Stitch It & Co.

Matthew Carlton’s endearing portrayal of Clarence Odbody has us rooting for him from the very first moments, when we join the rank-and-file Guardian Angel on a supernatural tour through George Bailey’s life. 

Bedford Falls’ streetscape flickers into focus one glowing window at a time, and then comes the moment of truth...

Yes. Happily, Studio Tenn’s principals shine brightly through the long shadows cast by the iconic performances of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

Brent Maddox brings fresh effervescence to his buoyant George Bailey, complemented by the thoroughly enchanting Shannon Hoppe as humble heroine Mary Hatch Bailey. 

Veteran villain Chip Arnold — formerly Studio Tenn’s Scrooge -- is perfectly on par as the miserly Henry F. Potter. 

Derek Whittaker conjures a loveably oafish Uncle Billy alongside Denice Hicks as steadfast Aunt Tilly. 

The thoroughly stellar cast includes several familiar faces -- Garris Wimmer (Mr. Gower), Matthew Rosenbaum (Harry Bailey), Nan Gurley (Ma Bailey), Ellie Sikes (Violet), Corey Caldwell (Bert/Sam Wainwright/Mr. Martini), Nat MacIntyre (Ernie), Erin Parker (Mrs. Hatch/Mrs. Thompson) and Erika Lee (Miss. Andrews/Mrs. Martini) -- and talented junior players, Charlie Webb (Young George, Pete Bailey), Ayla Williams (Young Mary), Micah Williams (Tommy Bailey), Bella Higgenbotham (Zuzu Bailey), and Mary Marguerite Hall (Young Violet, Janie Bailey).

The whole team works in tandem to bring a rejuvenating frankness (pardon the pun) to Capra’s masterpiece. After all, it’s not merely George’s metamorphosis from humbug to holly-jolly that tugs so tenaciously at our heartstrings year after year. It’s his ultimate reconciliation with the reality that life doesn’t turn out the way we plan.

Perhaps this reminder is most palatable at the year’s end; when we pause to look back on our progress along (or divergence from) our charted course, it is sobering to remember that indeed some plans are made only to be broken -- and comforting to rediscover that life is beautiful in spite of, sometimes because of, that inevitable truth.

It’s a Christmastime story, for all time. But it’s only here -- live on stage, in our own backyard -- for a very brief moment. If the movie is a holiday fixture in your family, give yourself a special gift this year and enhance the tradition with this powerful firsthand experience.

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