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Prime TimesA Wonderful Life, dinner-theatre style

A Wonderful Life, dinner-theatre style

Set in a 1946 radio show broadcast of The Greatest Gift, the original name of Philip Van Doren Stern‘s short story, the production begins with a trip back to the golden age of radio. Complete with old-time radio commercials, the cast enters the stage, breaking down the metaphorical fourth wall between the stage and audience as they introduce themselves to the dinner guests. As the show begins, the cast of five actors and actresses comfortably switch between the show’s many characters. Transcending childhood, teen years, young adulthood, and the day of George Bailey’s pending demise as the bank examiner is closing in on him on of all nights Christmas Eve, the constant, age old struggle between good and evil manifests itself in yet another setting.

George Bailey, played by Brendan Jennings, an eternal dreamer and do-gooder who never fails to take time to assist everyone around him, is Bedford Falls’ unsung hero. Set in Depression Era through post-WWII Western New York, this Christmas classic begins with George’s first act of heroism when he saves his brother’s life after falling through the ice. Later, putting off travel, college, and of course his dreams of seeing the world, George is railroaded into running the hometown building and loan upon the death of his father. Spending his life running his family’s business, Bailey assists immigrants, working stiffs, and the common man in general, by giving business loans and mortgages to the town’s people.

A 1946 radio broadcast of the play that would later become It’s A Wonderful Life is recreated at the Clove Creek Dinner Theatre in Fishkill.

As each event in his life unfolds, George still dreams of travel and adventure, until finally reaching his tipping point as he’s about to lose everything, Old Man Potter, the town’s villain, points out to George that he’s worth more dead than alive. When George proceeds to find a permanent solution to a short term problem, our tragic hero’s guardian angel, Clarence, comes swooping down for a visit to set George straight as to his importance as the pillar of the community. As the two go through a magical journey, transcending time and space, they take inventory of all of the good deeds that George has performed throughout his lifetime.

As I’ve seen this timeless Christmas classic an uncountable number of times since I was child, this production added a whole new dimension to my understanding of Bailey as the archetypal tragic hero. Using a readers’ theater format, the theater goer visualizes the events of the show. Set without a stage set or any physical interaction among the cast members, this show challenges the imagination of theater goers as they are wined, dined, and entertained by the staff at the Clove Creek Dinner Theater.

Upon interviewing Felicia DiNonno, the Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s owner, my obvious question was what prompted a business woman to open a dinner theater? During a very informative conversation DiNonno not only introduced me to her managerial staff, but also gave me some background about how this little-known gem has flourished here in the Hudson Valley. Acting on her life-long interest in theater, DiNonno’s Clove Creek Theater has been operating now for two years. Started by DiNonno to promote the arts, create jobs, boost tourism, enhance the economy, and host fundraisers for local non-profit organizations in Dutchess County, this theater is a dream come true for not only DiNonno, but for actors and actresses in the Hudson Valley.

Running one production per month under the direction of Teresa Gasparini, the theater’s Artistic Director, the theater focuses mostly on comedies, with the occasional dinner dance as well as fundraiser shows for the community. With last year’s production of World War II-Radio Christmas, DiNonno has decided to make radio broadcasts an annual tradition for their holiday shows.
Offering a choice of four entrées per show as well as a cash bar, Jerry Florin, the dinner theater’s Restaurant Supervisor along with his staff, make the meal worth the price of admission alone.

For a great time that will put you in the holiday spirit, I’d recommend adding this show to your list of holiday traditions.

By Matt Barbero

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