As Tim Scott knows from his job as emcee at Royals games, the talented too often leave this town. The good news is that Scott isn't following Mark Teahen anywhere. As he demonstrates in the American Heartland Theatre's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Scott the actor is every bit as intense as Scott the between-innings superfan. That doesn't mean he's manic. His George Bailey keeps that intensity inside him.
As always, young George Bailey dreams of the world but can't get out of his small town. With Scott in the role, we see — as we did with Jimmy Stewart — his frustration accumulate with such clear emotional logic that when the familiar plot calls for its hero to settle on a Christmas Eve suicide, only the churlish would find it overwrought. Scott's flashes of darkness and humor seem to come from the gut, not the brain.
He's helped by writer Joe Landry's radio setting. Instead of Bedford Falls, we get the studios at WDAF, circa 1946, where Kansas City actors have assembled to perform Frank Capra's movie live. (That set, designed by Alex Perry and Laura Burkhart, hums with radio history.) The actors hold scripts at microphones. Ken Remmert, who plays Clarence the Angel, also rigs up old-school sound effects, and musical director Anthony Edwards gets to play his piano on the set and contribute nicely off-key bits of dialogue.
It's probably more cost-effective this way, but it also makes sense: Audiences aren't just nostalgic for the old stories but are now nostalgic for bygone media.
The setup allows everyone to play multiple roles, which gives Scott his most remarkable scene: a lengthy discussion in which he switches between George Bailey and Bailey's dad. As the father, Scott indulges in an impression of Jimmy Stewart; when tacking from father to son, though, he lifts that imitation first to homage, then to full-fledged, heart-tugging character.
Lauren Braton channels 1940s film stars to good effect, playing George Bailey's wife as a smoky-voiced sophisticate still eager to melt. Actually, she's playing the radio actress who plays Mrs. Bailey, which gets complicated. What matters most is that her scenes of youthful flirtation with Scott positively tingle. Director Paul Hough achieves goofball comedy on the radio set and estimable drama in the Bedford Falls we have to imagine. The couple of times that he let the radio staff flail about, I closed my eyes and just listened. It worked.
This year's Christmas in Song at Quality Hill Playhouse holds to its three-singers-gathered-around-a-piano form and the traditions that have made it Kansas City's most consistently stirring Christmas show for 15 years. It also feels new again, partially because of the traditions that it chucks. This show has few familiar chestnuts, many novel arrangements and no comedy numbers. And that old battleship "O Holy Night" passes by gently, never coming close to cannoning the heavens.
J. Kent Barnhart is after something delicate this year, a reflectiveness about how this season of hype might still somehow nourish us.
A half-dozen new-to-me Christmas pop songs in the second half personalize the holiday. Rather than the impossible peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, the affecting "Christmas Lullaby" and "God Bless My Family," both by Ann Hampton Calloway, aim for peace in our lives for a moment and goodwill toward those we love. I appreciate the practicality.
The show is quiet, but the only thing mellow is some of Cary Mock's warm and easy crooning. Forgotten 1950s number "A Cradle in Bethlehem," sung by Barnhart and Amy Coady, swings with a gentle urgency. And with Harry Connick Jr.'s hushed "I Come With Love," the ensemble braves the mystery of the Gospels, daring an intense contemplation rather than another round of fa-la-la. Yes, they do "Jingle Bells," "O Tannenbaum" and a "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," but Barnhart has dug up surprising new arrangements.
In the biggest surprise of all, he invites each singer to introduce a number with his or her own thoughts on what Christmas means. I defy you to remain dry-eyed at Coady's account of spending the season apart from her husband or her expressive treatment of "The Bells of St. Paul" afterward.