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Wonderful life

Sara Tubbs, left, Don Denton and Allison Willie in Circa '21's "A Wonderful Life."

There's some deja vu in the newest edition of "A Wonderful Life" at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, with four of the lead roles being reprised by the actors who played them in the 2008 edition.

But with a new director and the rest of the cast new to the show, there's predominately a sense of starting over.

"Unless it's the same director, you just must wipe the slate clean," said Don Denton, reprising his role as George Bailey. "Sometimes, if the director has done the show before, it's quickest and most efficient to do much of the same staging. But with a new director, it's new staging."

Besides Denton, returning to their roles are Tristan Tapscott as brother Harry Bailey, John Payonk as Mr. Potter and Tom Walljasper as Clarence the novice angel.

Circa veteran Ann Nieman takes over the reins of "Wonderful Life," which opens Friday night. A devoted fan of the 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life" — "I cry over it every year," she says — Nieman ordered her cast not to see the film until well after Circa's opening.

"It needs to be our version of the story," she said. "No matter how fine of an actor you are and how careful you try to be, those other performances kind of creep in."

Nieman is, however, "inserting what I consider to be little-bitty iconic moments from the movie.

"There's little points here and there that we've borrowed from the movie, but they're moments and not line deliveries or anything like that," she added.

Since the '08 edition of "Wonderful Life," Denton has had lead roles at Circa in shows such as "Les Miserables," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Happy Days: The Musical."

"It's been an important seven years for me in order to relate to this character," Denton said. "It's still me obviously, but it's slightly different than it was before and very different in a few places."

Sara Tubbs, who had one of the female lead roles in last year's Circa holiday musical, "White Christmas," said she and the rest of the cast were "coming into the show with fresh eyes."

"I haven't watched the movie in years," said Tubbs, who plays Mary Bailey.

"I think she's written a little feistier in this show version," Nieman said of Tubbs' character.

Changes were made from the movie to the musical version, Denton said, to better accommodate the staging.

"Everything that happened in the water now happens via locomotion," he said. "We talk about Harry slipping through the cracks of a frozen pond, he nearly gets runs over by a truck. ... And George and Clarence do not jump from a bridge into a river, but they stand on railroad tracks.

"That actually works out very nicely because the train is a symbol of something that George wants, which is to travel," Denton added. "We have the dual metaphor of this train, one that it's his impending doom and one that it's the release that he wants. It's kind of neat how it works out."

There's still enough to please "Wonderful Life" purists, they say.

"The core of the story is all still there," Denton said. "The thing that makes it so beautiful, the heart that makes this story so accessible to everyone is all there."

"It's a beautiful message for sure," Tubbs added.