The opening night audience for Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's "A Wonderful Life" thoroughly enjoyed Don Denton's dead-on impersonation of Jimmy Stewart, star of the movie that the stage musical inspired.
But Denton's Jimmy — voice inflection, stuttering, stammering and all — was a one-time only shot, in the debut night's traditional post-curtain call invitation to a reception in the Circa salon.
On stage Denton, reprising the role he had in the 2007 Circa version, makes George Bailey his own with a boyish charm that gives way to the cynicism of adulthood and finally the relief of redemption.
Directed by Ann Nieman, Circa's "Wonderful Life" grabs on to you and holds on tight like a hug from a favorite uncle — a warm fuzzy that still has plenty of meat on its bones.
Denton is one of four performers to reprise their roles from the "Wonderful Life" of eight years ago, along with Tristan Tapscott as brother Harry Bailey and John Payonk as Mr. Potter.
But it's Tom Walljasper, as angel-in-training Clarence, that provides much of the whimsey in "Wonderful." Wearing 19th century clothes rather than the angel robe he sported in '07, Walljasper's loose-limbed agility is reminiscent of the Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz," which he played at Circa in 2003. And his childlike exuberance as Clarence, opposite Pat Flaherty as stoic and gruff angel Matthew, is a reminder of why he's a treasure in Quad-City theater.
New to the role of Mary, Sara Tubbs oozes charm as George's love interest in an earnest, natural portrayal.
Another newcomer to Circa, but a veteran of District Theatre and Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, Doug Kutzli is solid as both George's father and the bank examiner.
Music director Tyson Danner gets a rich, textured and deep sound from the cast. Gregory Hyatt's costume design creates a colorful palette, especially in the women's dresses during the dance scenes. Projection is used for the second show in a row at Circa, and Stephen Kennedy creates some unique animation, particularly during the scene where George is in the back of a cab speeding through Bedford Falls.
Nieman's direction nimbly sways from the intensity of a train headed toward George Bailey (a slight adjustment from the movie) to several heartfelt versions of the hero's prayer in the snowfall. Her choreography sparkles, particularly in an athletic version of the Charleston.
Circa's "Wonderful Life" is wonderful indeed, whether or not an audience member is a devotee of the film version. Attaboy, Clarence — and everyone else involved.