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A Holiday Classic Comes to Cohoes Music Hall: A Wonderful Life, Review

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A Wonderful Life, Cohoes Music Hall, Review

The Holiday Classic is Now a Musical: A Wonderful Life at the Cohoes Music Hall

John Noble, left, plays villainous banker Henry F. Potter, and Brad Heikes plays George Bailey in the musical A Wonderful Life at Cohoes Music Hall. (Photo - Theresa M. Thibodeau)There are definitely two camps when it comes to the film It’s a Wonderful Life. For some, the holidays aren’t the holidays without laughing and crying along with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey, but for others, it’s just plain boring. A black and white 1946 film with a running time of over 2 hours, featuring a main character with the luck of Job, it is easy to see how it can get trying. But the upbeat, funny, and talented cast of the stage production A Wonderful Life, at Cohoes Music Hall, reawakens the classic tale for the 2011 holidays. And you still have a chance to see it this season, as the show runs through December 18, 2011.

The Cohoes Music Hall does a lot to get you in the spirit for a romping stage show. Originally opened in 1874 as a vaudeville theatre, the building has a sense of 19th century grandeur with its marble facade and third floor main stage surrounded by elaborate woodwork. Although it fell into disrepair at the turn of the century, the building was restored and reopened during the 1970s and has been featuring full-scale productions ever since. It is now the home to C-R productions which is heading into its 10th season in Cohoes in 2012. A Wonderful Life marks their 59th production. For this holiday season the theatre has been decked out in red bows and pine garlands.

A definite community feeling surrounds the audience at this theatre, when artistic director Jim Charles and managing director Tony Rivera come out to speak to the audience personally before each show. Although almost half the audience raised their hands as newcomers, it is obvious that many of the others are regulars. With this grassroots level love and its modest size, the professional quality may be surprising.

The musical show follows the classic film’s plot faithfully, but whether it’s the natural difference between theatre and film or the talent of these actors to draw you in, it seems more funny, more heartwarming, and more exciting than ever. The first scene depicts Brad Heikes, a true Jimmy Steward doppelganger minus the distinctive voice, as the hero George Bailey. He has been driven to thoughts of suicide on Christmas due to a lifetime of unfortunate circumstances, but his despair is noticed by heavenly forces.

Angels Matthew and Clarence, played by Mark Rosenthal and Kelly Briggs respectively, are definitely the comic relief in this somewhat serious story. Briggs’s portrayal of a simple-minded second-tier angel trying to earn his wings is hilarious and touching, especially against Rosenthal’s stern foil. They are both convincing and comical, due in part to the excellent costumes. Matthew in particular is grand and imposing with gold-lined white robes and gigantic feathered wings.

The true sign of this show’s quality, however, is the singing and dancing talent of each and every actor. This talent shows itself best in the high school Charleston competition performed by George’s brother Harry (Ben Martin) and town tart Violet (Kaitlin Niewhoener) with backup from the rest of the cast. A truly kooky dance in itself, the performers make it exciting and funny with dangerous-looking lifts and a panoply of high kicks.

Brad Heikes’ and Caroline Galvez’s portrayals of George and Mary Bailey are impressive individual accomplishments. Brad Heikes gets the look and spirit of Jimmy Stewart to a tee, although he falls somewhat short of the charisma and personality Stewart gave to the original George. If anything is lacking in this production it’s the chemistry between the lead couple, which Heikes and Galvez were not quite able to capture. Their interactions seemed stiff and acted even as their individual performances were fluid and believable.

Luckily nothing could take away from the truly “wonderful” feelings this play gave the audience. Everyone was laughing, smiling, and engaging with the performance, as the musical numbers and banter kept the sometimes somber plot from getting too serious. And conversations after the show made it obvious that the moral of the story has not become too old-fashioned for today’s audiences. Everyone was discussing Clarence’s iconic line: “Each man’s life touches many other lives, and when he’s not around it leaves an awful hole.” If for nothing else, this show is sure to remind you during the holidays that your life, taken as a whole, can always be seen as “wonderful.”

For tickets and additional information, visit

Jessica Nicosia is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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