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John Lamb, Published December 04 2012

Actors study the film in FMCT’s staging of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

FARGO – When tackling new productions of classic material, some directors look for a way to either put their own touch by modernizing the setting and references or even switching gender roles.

In remakes of the 1946 silver screen gem “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the story was updated to the 1990s and told from the angel’s point of view in 1990’s “Clarence.” In 1977’s “It Happened One Christmas,” the roles are altered so it’s Mary Bailey who runs the family Building and Loan and contemplates suicide before a visit from her guardian angel, Clara Oddbody.

For Jean Wilhelmi, there was no question how she would handle the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre’s staging of the story: with reverence and true to the original movie.

While some of the scenes had to be cut to make the show less than two hours with an intermission, and the size of the stage only allows for the two main settings in George Bailey’s life – the Bailey Building and Loan and his drafty, old house – the story, its message and the script remain true to Frank Capra’s film.

“I’m a huge fan of the movie,” Wilhelmi says. “It would drive me crazy if they weren’t saying the right lines.”

To stay so close to the film, not only do the lines need to be right, they need to be delivered in a way that’s familiar to the audience.

“Because this movie is so classic, I don’t want to mess with the feeling, sentimentality of it, the characters,” she says. “People are coming to the theater, and they expect Bedford Falls and they expect for George to be the nice guy that always does the right thing. With this show particularly it has to be what you expect it to be.”

Of course, the audience doesn’t really expect James Stewart to play the beleaguered George Bailey or Donna Reed to be his doting wife.

Wilhelmi talked about what she was looking for in the principal actors, and they explained how they handled their iconic roles without just mimicking the original stars.

George Bailey

“You’re not going to find Jimmy Stewart,” Wilhelmi says.

But she’s very happy with what she found in local actor Chris Horsager.

“I just fall in love with him every night as George. He’s really sincere as a character,” she says. “I feel like he really shows his heart.”

“I definitely tuned into the caring compassion George has,” the actor says.

That said, he also paid close attention to Bailey’s internal conflict and how he loses hope.

“In the show we’ve keyed into more range when he gets darker later in the movie,” he explains.

While not as lanky as the 6-foot-3-inch Stewart, a physical actor who used big gestures to channel George Bailey’s enthusiasm, Horsager tries to keep up.

“I just try to keep my arms moving,” he says.

Mary Bailey

Wilhelmi knew Nicole LeBlanc would be her leading lady when she saw her audition with Horsager.

“The two of them, when they auditioned together, it was magic,” Wilhelmi explains. “The chemistry between the two made it seem like it could be. Onstage they are both such genuine, gentle souls.”

She praises LeBlanc for “a real wholesomeness and warmth. That mothering quality.”

“We’re both very sweet, happy, elegant, romantic types,” the actress says of her character. “It’s easy to play that.”

But she sees something in Mary that Reed’s portrayal may have glossed over.

“Her life is pretty much nothing without George,” LeBlanc says. “George makes her whole, gives her a sense of purpose.”


George may give Mary’s life purpose, but it’s his burgeoning guardian angel that shows George what his own life really means to others, even as George is considering ending it all.

“Clarence is a really hard role,” Wilhelmi says. “There needs to be a light-hearted innocence to the character. He also needs to have a childlike wisdom.”

Brian Fuder knew the role well.

“I grew up with the movie. I try to model myself after Clarence’s kindness, his sincerity,” the actor says.

But there’s one thing characteristic in Henry Travers’ original portrayal he’s trying to kick.

“I try not to be quite as bumbling as he was in the movie,” Fuder says with a laugh.

Mr. Potter

Of course, the major instigator and aggravator of George’s troubles is the banker, Mr. Potter, “a warped, frustrated old man,” as George calls him.

“The thing I wanted with Potter was not just this feeling of pure evil, no nuance,” the director says. “I was looking for someone who could bring out evil without yelling the whole time or chewing up the scenery. Someone who could delve a little bit into Potter’s character… That’s how I think you have to approach an evil character, see what their motivation was and how they see themselves in a positive light.”

She and veteran actor William R. Balsley talked about Potter as a man who needs to be involved, who feels like he’s the only person who can get something done right.

“I love playing the villain,” Balsley says.

And in Potter, personified for many in Lionel Barrymore’s crotchety growl, he had a great role model. But Balsley’s more interested in upping the ante on evil.

“I actually play him more vile than Barrymore played him,” he says. “There is no redemption for Potter. He’s the Wicked Witch of the West without a broom and you can’t make him melt with water.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

What: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

When: 7:30 p.m.

Friday and Saturday

Where: The Stage at Island Park, 333 4th St. S., Fargo

Info: Tickets range from $6 for children to $16 for adults. (701) 235-6778