Christmas is going to be a little different in Fayetteville this year at the Gilbert Theater. Instead of the familiar A Christmas Carol, a new holiday story will take center stage , with It’s a Wonderful Life by James Rodgers.
The show, which follows the life of George Bailey, a small-town family man, runs from Nov. 27 through Dec. 20. Bailey feels trapped by responsibilities when a guardian angel brings back his sense of joy and fulfillment by showing him how life would be different if he had never been born.
For years, the Gilbert Theater made a tradition of presenting A Christmas Carol. This classic tale is still poignant, but familiarity began to work against it. It was time to infuse some more excitement into the season.
“We at the Gilbert were a bit tired of — meaning we needed a change — and I felt the community needed one as well,” Robyne Parrish the artistic director at Gilbert Theater explained. “You can never really tire of that story — but you can take a break and come back to it later with fresh eyes and heart. I have always loved It’s a Wonderful Life, so it was my first thought as a possible replacement. We are not sure at this point if the change will be ongoing — but if it works out well this year we will plan to bring it back again next year. There is always room for a new holiday tradition!”
This change, in many ways, is a community decision. The Gilbert Theater was less excited about another rendition of A Christmas Carol and the community echoed the sentiment in attendance. The next step after deciding change is necessary was deciding on a new production. The theatre reached out to the community again.
“Before we made any decision, we polled our audiences,” Parrish explained. “For more than six months last season we asked our audiences to vote by ballot and they chose It’s A Wonderful Life! The response has been nothing but positive across the board . I was not sure what to expect since tradition is important here in the South. I think it might be easy for some to say ... if it ain’t broke ... but our excitement about producing A Christmas Carol was low and you really must do something that you feel a passion for and want to share with the community or what is the point? I was happy to discover the overwhelming excitement from our community about getting to see this well-loved film to come to life on stage.”
This full-stage rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life is not a musical, but it is full of fun and festive music and singing. Adding another layer to the challenge is that this production will feature the largest cast that Parrish has ever seen in the theater — 24 people. Usually the cast size is limited to 15 or 16 members due to the intimate nature of the space, but the Gilbert Theater is committed to doing this show the right way, even if it means being a little crowded back stage. Parrish says that the passion of the actors will overcome these small discomforts and rather than double casting, it is important to maintain the integrity of each character for this story.
The Christmas season is always a highly charged and emotional season, and not all of these emotions are positive. It’s a Wonderful Life is still so relatable and applicable because it captures both the beautiful and difficult emotions that surround the season. “In keeping with our tradition of thought provoking material, Wonderful Life is a story of depression, love, loss and at last, redemption! It is a modern day Scrooge tale at its very core; a look at one man’s true struggle to find purpose and peace in this life we all share,” Parrish said, noting that while holidays are never simple but it’s this powerful mix of emotions that makes them so magical.
The Gilbert Theater will also offer student matinees of this classic family-friendly tale. Already, the matinee for this production has sold out, prompting plans for the addition of a second matinee next year. Parrish feels that these opportunities for students are very important, especially when the production has such a relatable theme.
“I especially feel that the more mature students will really understand the struggle that George experiences throughout the play. George is a small-town boy with a big city dream, and I am sure that many of our local students can relate to this feeling; the feeling of wanting to break out and do something big somewhere else! George, much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, discovers that everything he needed was always ‘right in his own back yard’ but only after several decades of failing and picking himself back up again. He actually considers ending his life at one point but through the help of a spiritual guide or an angel, as it were, George discovers why he must stay and that he is loved. I hope that it will be a message to our kids that it is okay to fail. Failure is a part of growth,” she said.
In addition to bringing a new production to the stage, the Gilbert Theater also brings a new actor. Parrish said, “Local favorite, Ken Griggs will star as George Bailey. This will be Ken’s first appearance on the Gilbert stage and we are thrilled to have him.”
It’s a Wonderful Life runs from Nov. 27 until Dec. 20 at the Gilbert Theater. Tickets are $16 and can be purchased online through a link on the Gilbert Theater website or by calling the theater. For more information visit www.gilberttheater.com or call 910.678.7186. The Gilbert Theater is located at 116 Green St. This is a classic family friendly tale that explores the holiday season honestly. And as Parrish says, “… it is a wonderful way to celebrate this holiday season.”