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Reviews: Martin Burke delights in ‘This Wonderful Life’; cult movie comes to stage in ‘A Christmas Story’

Cate Blouke
Martin Burke stars in “This Wonderful Life” at Zach Theatre through Dec. 29.

We all have our favorite holiday traditions: wrapping presents, hanging lights, and (probably) revisiting some of the uplifting stories we’ve been hearing and telling for years.

If the 1946 Jimmy Stewart classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is a staple of your holiday season (or even just a fond memory), then Zach Theater has a marvelous adventure to offer you.

Playing through Dec. 29, “This Wonderful Life” retells the heartwarming tale of one man’s impact on an entire town through the virtuosity of just one man.

In his unflaggingly energetic performance, Martin Burke both narrates the story for us and performs all the characters — running up and down stairs, and gliding into the roles of everyone from old curmudgeons to sweet little children.

Playwright Steve Murray’s script offers charming commentary on the story and a number of welcome comedic flourishes.

Whether you know the film by heart or have the most passing familiarity, Burke’s rendition brings you right into the heart of Bedford Falls. His narrative descriptions paint vivid pictures of the scenes we witness, we get a clear sense of all the characters, and we are kept well abreast of all the plot developments.

Jason Amato’s lighting design transforms the intimate space of the Whisenhut Stage as Burke moves across it; the lights shift us smoothly from the Bailey home to the cold and desolate bridge where George contemplates suicide. We can really feel the wintry world of this play.

Perhaps the show’s only real failing stems from a dramatic imbalance in the script. The first act thoroughly acquaints us with the selflessness and compassion that George Bailey offers the world, crafting a vital emotional investment in the character. It builds steadily to a narrative climax, and the break is well timed for everyone (especially for the prodigiously talented actor). Yet when we return to the story and witness the bleak world without George, we rush right through the desolation his absence has wrought.

Nevertheless, the show’s finale can’t help but leave everyone in the theater at least a little verklempt.

And although the show will doubtlessly put you in the holiday mood, Burke reminds us that this story is not just about Christmas, but rather the untold effects that each of us has on the lives around us.

‘A Christmas Story’

By definition, cult classics possess a devoted and enthusiastic set of followers. Although they may not exactly “mature” with age, such films gain momentum with time and circulation, eventually snowballing into cultural fixtures to be repackaged for devoted fans.

With limited success at the time of its initial release, the 1983 film, “A Christmas Story,” has earned its place in the holiday television line-up. Now, you can see it on stage as well.

Playing through Dec. 29 at Zach Theatre, the stage version of “A Christmas Story” faithfully reproduces the tale of a boy and his quest for a B.B. gun.

Not to be confused with the Broadway musical version of the story released last year, this adaptation offers impressive staging without any song and dance.

The show opens on an idyllic winter scene, cleverly fashioned as a snow globe, which highlights the semi-fantastical nature of grown-up Ralphie Parker’s reminiscing. Michelle Ney’s remarkable scenic design avails itself of the space and technological capabilities of the new Topfer stage, offering a lovely array of visual delights over the course of the show.

As the adult Ralph Parker narrator of the story, Marco Perella takes us back to Parker’s youth in Hohman, Ind., where his mother made meatloaf and red cabbage for dinner every night, and his father waged daily wars on a recalcitrant furnace.

All young Ralphie (Magnus Bohls alternating with Keaton Brandt) wanted for Christmas (and out of life) that year was an official Red Ryder carbine-action, two-hundred-shot air rifle (with a compass and a “thing that tells time” in the stock). And, of course, every time he tells anyone of his heart’s desire, they reply with the heart-sinking observation that he’ll likely shoot his eye out. But Ralphie is determined to prove them wrong.

Interwoven in the saga of Ralphie’s quest for the gun, we get comedic snippets of home life with his quirky little brother (William May alternating with Diego Rodriguez), his compassionate and clever mother (Meredith McCall) and his vociferous and single-minded father (Chris Gibson).

Perella has some big shoes to fill when it comes to re-capturing the comic timing of the film’s narration, and, unfortunately, the delivery falls short.

However, as the father, Gibson delights with his creative cursing of life’s inconveniences and his stubborn devotion to the (now-iconic) tacky leg-lamp he wins in a contest. And the children of the ensemble inevitably charm as they act out young Raphie’s daydreams and reminiscences.

“This Wonderful Life”