This holiday season, two North Delta actors will be up on stage spreading Christmas cheer in Gateway Theatre’s musical production of It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s one of the few musicals that’s really Christmas-y, as opposed to just a lovely musical,” said actress Michelle Collier. Collier will be playing Ma Bailey in the musical, which runs through December at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre.
“It’s really focused on the spirit of peace on earth, good will to men, and women, and children.”
Many people are familiar with the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, which follows Bedford Falls businessman George Bailey as he is brought back from the brink of despair by an amateur angel, who shows him what life would be like had he never been born.
“It’s got a wide range of emotion for the audience, and for the actors,” Collier said about the story.
The movie focuses on the narrative around George Bailey’s life — starting with his childhood and continuing through his struggles in adulthood. The musical takes that story and adds some theatrical flair, including a musical number devoted to Clarence the angel’s attempt to stop George Bailey from committing suicide.
That number is North Delta actor Alex Sheppard-Reid’s favourite part.
“It’s probably the most musical theatre-y part of the show,” Sheppard-Reid, 12, said about the song, which sees a number of angels dressed as pilots dance across stage. “The choreography is amazing; it’s so funny.”
Sheppard-Reid will be playing young George Bailey, as well as George Bailey’s son Pete, in the production. The Sunshine Hills Elementary student has acted before with Delta Youth Theatre, but this performance will be his first with a professional theatre company.
“It definitely runs a lot faster,” Sheppard-Reid said about the experience. Instead of having two or three months of rehearsals before opening night, they had just four weeks. And instead of six performances, there will be nearly 30.
“It’s so different from what I’m used to, but it’s really, really fun,” he said.
“I have missed a lot of school, so it’s been difficult for me to keep up with everybody else,” he added. “But I have kept going and I’m pretty much caught up now. It was just difficult at first to try and manage both of them.”
Despite the challenge of balancing school and rehearsal, Sheppard-Reid seems to be succeeding in his theatrical role.
“I’m really impressed with him. He’s a delight to work with,” Collier said. “He has an entire song, and he’s just doing a fantastic job.”
Like many of the actors in Gateway Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Sheppard-Reid will be taking on two characters — something that is both a great experience for the young actor and also a challenge.
“I find the best way for me to separate them is just [to give them] completely different personalities,” Sheppard-Reid said about his roles. “I try and make sure they don’t really have anything in common so I can keep things different, so it’s not like, ‘Why is young George here with adult George?’”
Even for veteran performers like Collier — she wouldn’t give her age, but has been performing since elementary school and is now old enough that her “favourite activity is seniors’ day at Value Village” — the alternate reality brought forward at the end of the musical provides an artistic challenge.
“We change so drastically,” Collier said. “How would I age? Would I walk differently? Certainly … my voice would be different because I wouldn’t have had the joy in my life of having George as my son.
“So that’s a challenge,” she continued. “It’s always good to have a challenge when you’re doing a part.”
So how does the musical compare to the movie?
Without giving too much away — Collier was hesitant to do that — the musical features a Charleston dance number, numerous costume changes over the decades of George Bailey’s life and special effects when Clarence the angel first arrives. But it still aims to maintain the heartfelt sincerity of the Christmas classic, Collier said.
“It’s moving, it’s fun,” she said. “I know families who every year go to the Christmas musical at Gateway, and that’s a family tradition for them, and that’s a lovely thing.
“This is a really wonderful one to add to that series of musicals at Gateway.”
Tickets for It’s a Wonderful Life begin at $29 and are available online at gatewaytheatre.com/its-wonderful-life. Shows will be performed on the main stage at Gateway Theatre in Richmond (6500 Gilbert Rd., Richmond). Opening night is Dec. 6, and shows run until Dec. 31.