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For Mason Lamb, ‘Life’ is looking up with CenterStage’s ‘Merry Christmas, George Bailey’

The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without some version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” brightening our evenings. CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre is beating the rush this weekend with its version of the classic tale, this one a radio-play adaptation titled “Merry Christmas, George Bailey.” It opens Saturday, Nov. 27, at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District theater. It runs through Dec. 11.

Pictured above: Mason Lamb plays the title character (and makes hats look good) in ‘Merry Christmas, George Bailey.’  Photo: Alex Soto, CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre

Playing the pivotal role of George Bailey is a name familiar to the Fresno-area classical music/composing community, but not so much to the theater community: Mason Lamb. He’s making his official adult acting debut on the stage. In preparation, he’s thought long and hard about this role, and we had a terrific phone and email conversation about it:

Q: First of all, I just want to say that when you’re playing George Bailey, you look great in a hat. Do you think hats for men will ever come back into style?

A: Honestly, I’d be happy to see a return of smart-looking attire everywhere. After 18-plus months of working from home, smothering ourselves in comfort-casual and frumpy clothes, I’d like to think we’d all appreciate a renewed sense of making an effort in our appearance when we go out in public. I’ve had all of the sweatpants and T-shirts I can handle; a tailored suit and some decent shoes are high on my priority list. As for nice hats, I’d love to see them reclaimed from that certain creepy subculture that appropriated quality headwear.

Q: I was really surprised to see your name on the cast list because I know you as a composer. What gives? Have you acted before? (And did you write your own theme music for the show?)

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A: Oh, I’m still a composer and have upcoming projects I’m very excited about, but creative people never succeed all by themselves; we need a troop or an ensemble around us to succeed – a lesson made painfully real during the pandemic. When the opportunity to audition for this role came up, I decided on a whim to give it a go. I’ve never acted in any serious way before.

I took an undergrad course in acting long ago (I think I got a B) but never sought out any roles. I’ve been a musician for most of my life, and I’m comfortable on stage as a performer or conductor, so there are definitely some points of crossover. I think those years of practiced stage presence have given me a good platform to transition to acting. I didn’t write any music for this show, but I did lend a hand with some of the technical and audio requirements.

Q: Because “It’s a Wonderful Life” is in the public domain, there are several adaptations floating around, including a couple of radio-play versions. What sets “Merry Christmas, George Bailey,” by Shirlee H. Shields, apart from other titles?

A: The original 1947 radio adaptation is a very abbreviated script, with just the highlights of the story left in and many scenes turned into expositional dialogue. This stage version was made about 20 years ago, and takes the 1947 radio version as a point of inspiration, but adds back more scenes and lines of dialogue from the film. There are still cuts and adaptations that needed to be made, but they serve the story well. I think audiences will see many of their favorite moments from the film re-imagined in a fresh way. The heart of the story is still there.

Q: What is your favorite live radio-play sound effect in the production?

A: It’s small but gets a big laugh. There’s a clever moment in the final act when Clarence the Angel is conversing with his Heavenly superiors. A little percussion triangle is used to represent a rather probing question they ask him. It’s a tiny detail, but it has so much humor and charm, I just love it.

Q: Sometimes when I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I think of people who blather on about how profound the film is and then after watching it immediately go back to bashing others, or letting greed consume them, or firing back up the hatred on social media. In other words, they thrill to the sentiment but ignore the message. (Sort of like how people can go to church and then after the service write a nasty Facebook post, say.) Do you ever have similar thoughts?

A: All of Capra’s films have a message that is both wholesome and righteously subversive. His protagonists always seem to become an avatar for our shared struggle against the deeper, complex ills of society. When we are so used to being assaulted with over-simplified, this-or-that absolutist thinking from our news and entertainment, it may be easy for the nuance and subtly of these stories to pass us by. And since “It’s A Wonderful Life” has become so ubiquitous in our culture, it typifies the idea that familiarity sometimes breeds contempt. We watch it as a type of comfort food for the soul, and think we know it well enough to accept it only at a surface level, or dismiss it entirely.

But it’s more than a feel-good holiday story. Peel back the layers, and there are nuances and profound themes. It challenges us to look at how our lives impact one another; how doing the right thing often means giving up our dreams; what happens when unchecked greed and divisiveness are allowed to devour a society; how anger and resentment can push even the best of people to a point of hopelessness; how the love we put into the world will always, in time, return to us.


Related story: AS FOOSA HEADS BACK TO DISNEY HALL, COMPOSER MASON LAMB IS IN FOR A THRILL

Q: At one point in the play, George says, “To get through this, we’ve got to have faith in each other.” What significance does this line have for you?

A: George’s impassioned speech during the bank crash scene is my favorite moment in the play. The Building and Loan’s assets have been handed over – they have no cash on hand – and George is trying to prevent panic when he accidentally stumbles into a great truth. As the people clamor to withdraw their cash, George tries to assuage them by convincing them that their money is not back in the safe (because it literally isn’t!) but has been spread and invested throughout their community into the lives of others. What starts as a desperate move turns quickly into a profound realization on George’s part; the people’s wealth is actually in other people, and to get through the struggle, they have to believe in and support each other.

It’s a point on which the entire show hinges, as at the end of the show we discover just how rich George himself was through his investment in peoples’ lives. And what a radical concept it is in today’s world of tribalism and manufactured outrage! No matter what we face, we will get through this, but we’ve got to have faith in each other.

Q: Speaking with you on the phone, I realized immediately that you have a great radio voice. While radio dramas aren’t performed much anymore, there is a modern-day equivalent: podcasts. I know that you’re a fan of podcasts. Why do you think they are so popular? And do you have any favorites to share?

A: Thank you! I adore podcasts. Listening to stories is the oldest form of entertainment we have. In ancient times, we’d gather round the campfire to hear stories. In the recent past, we would turn on the radio and hear dramas and comedies played out for us. Now, we have podcasts carrying on this ancient tradition. The power of the spoken word combined with the limitlessness of our imagination is a timeless form of entertainment. I doubt it will never be fully replaced by TV or movies.

For me, I’m a big fan of just about anything from NPR: “This American Life,” “RadioLab,” “Invisibilia,” “Science Friday,” “The Moth.” But my favorite podcast is a hilarious Science-Fiction/Comedy series called “Mission to Zyxx.” It follows the disastrous adventures of a crew of wildly dysfunctional and hopelessly inept space explorers. It’s also almost completely improvised – so the randomness of the humor is part of what makes it so good. But they also have phenomenal sound design that rivals anything you would hear in a feature film. And what’s more– and this appeals to me as a musician– their musical cues are written by the terrific composer Brendan Ryan and performed by a real orchestra. That’s a level of craft I absolutely adore.


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Q: If you could spend one day in Bedford Falls and the world of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” what would you do? How would you use that time?

A: The wonderful thing about Bedford Falls is it’s meant to act as an analog for our own hometowns where we see reflections of our lives in the people, places, and activities rather than being a halcyon place to which we long to escape.

That being said, I think the little corner of Bedford Falls I’d be happy to spend some time in (or transplant to our universe) would be Martini’s Tavern; it’s a friendly pub where locals of every stripe cross paths to eat, drink, and gather together. That’s one thing we need in our target-marketed modern world of ultra-niche gastropubs and soulless chain eateries – friendly establishments where everyone young and old is welcome to gather and be themselves around good food and drink, and maybe a song or two. Yes, let’s definitely normalize singing while we eat together!

Q: This show marks the first live performance from CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre since the pandemic shut things down. What was the pandemic like for you, and how does it feel to be involved with community theater?

A: There’s no sugar-coating it; the past 18 or so months have been awful for me. My own plans for the future were completely upended, and I found myself in a place of extreme loneliness, anxiety, and creative stagnation. This time has been hard on everyone, and we all have to work our way collectively toward healing from the trauma and stress we carried through this season of viral, social, and political tragedy. When so much has happened in the world to keep us apart in ways both physical and ideological, we need to learn to live amongst and with each other again. Theater is a great metaphor for charting this path toward healing: people from different backgrounds coming together as an ensemble to share a story of hope. Community theater in particular has a certain homespun charm and intimacy that touches our hearts in a way lavish productions often cannot.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: One decision I made early on with my portrayal of George Bailey was to not shy away from his flaws but rather lean into them. Our nostalgia glasses sometimes cause us to see George as an idealized moral hero who carried himself with dignity and grace, but this is not a correct portrait of the character. He is hot-tempered, awkward, arrogant at times, and full of ambitions beyond his abilities.

True, George always chooses to do the right thing when faced with tough decisions, but those choices come at a cost. His resentment and frustrations grow with every deferred dream, eventually leading to anger, verbally abusive behavior, and deep despair. He is not perfect, and that is what makes the resolution of his story so meaningful. How hopeless it would be for all of us if only perfect people were allowed the outpourings of love and generosity like George receives.


 


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Benjamin boone

    Marvelous interview!!

    reply
  • Doug Holck

    Great interview!

    reply

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