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Holiday classic comes alive on Phipps stage

Everybody, well everybody with a soul, loves "It's a Wonderful Life," the classic Frank Capra story brought to life by Jimmy Stewart and company. So when The Phipps made it part of their holiday schedule, you had to wonder what it would be like. What it was like -- was wonderful.

It never occurred to me that I had never just sat down and watched the movie version. While I watch it several times a holiday season, I am usually cooking when I do it -- either Thanksgiving pies or Christmas cookies or food gifts for the family.

That's what makes The Phipps production so much fun. You just get to sit there and enjoy it without an oven timer going off or swearing when you run out of sugar or butter. And it holds up well under the undistracted scrutiny.

This is director Gorden Hedahl's first show for The Phipps but one of more than 65 he has directed as a member of the theater faculty at UW-River Falls and at community and semi-professional theaters throughout the area. His experience pays off with the well-chosen cast and a production makes that movie version just something from the back of the mind.

Bruce Bell-Meyers is every bit George Bailey, the reluctant hero who makes us all wish we could find a banker like him. Bell-Meyers delivers a performance that kind of feels like a perfect recipe -- just the right amount of self-effacement, righteous indignation and common sense, the kind of guy we could use in Congress come to think of it.

And I could watch Phipps veteran Tom Monn make bread. As the angel working on his wings Monn, as Clarence, is everything I would wish for in a guardian angel. Monn as always not only delivers his lines with his voice, but with his whole body, using everything to create yet another unforgettable character.

Shannon Lee Cooper made me think of Donna Reed as Mary Bailey but only in the sense that she was as real as George's wife as Reed was to Stewart. How an actress projects optimism and good values without seeming overly sweet is a trick but Cooper does it in every scene she's in. I hope we see her at The Phipps more often.

On the flip side, Michael Norman delivers a near perfect performance as the villain of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter. Norman so captured Potter's poisonous nature that I think I caught myself snarling whenever he rolled onstage. Talk about the 1 percent!

Clara Ashwood plays Violet Peterson with just the right mix of experience and innocence that one expects from the floozie of Bedford Falls. And Scott Peterson as Uncle Billy creates the endearing, if not challenging, relative whose heart is in the right place but whose mind tends to wander elsewhere.

The rest of the talented cast includes Bernie Drevnick as Mr. Gower, Kevin Lee as Harry Bailey, Patti O'Meara as Mrs. Bailey, Karen Biedermann as Aunt Tilly, Paul Opseth as Bert, Tazariah Wolffe as Ernie, Mark Thiel as Mr. Welch, Jenni Derrick as Potter's secretary, Erin Culver as Mrs. Hatch, Michael Dunn as Sam Wainwright, Kevin Christensen and Diane Wendt as the Martinis, Missy Simmons as Miss Andrews, Felicia Dominguez as Mrs. Thompson and Ambrosia Webb as Miss Carter. There are also the talented Bailey children played by Rowan Bell-Myers, Donald Haines, Delaney McDowell and Isabel Isaac along with paper boy Maxwell Fey and Jack Clauss as young George who showed his true colors early on.

As usual, The Phipps production staff created set, sound, lights and costumes that supported the cast in every way. That staff included scenic designer Chad Van Kekerix, lighting designer Sara Leigh, costume designer Fred Rogers, sound designer A.J. Rivera, technical director Mark Koski, production coordinator Patti O'Meara and stage manager Kasey Jean Tunell.

So give yourself a treat. Stop multi-tasking and give yourself a holiday gift. "It's a Wonderful Life" runs weekends through Dec. 2. For ticket information, call (715)386-8409 or go online at

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604