By Charles Runnells

Read the Review on News-Press.com

You’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” dozens of times. You’ve memorized every scene in “A Christmas Story,” from that hideous pink bunny suit to that tacky leg lamp (it’s a major award!).

So why should you watch the stage versions of those holiday movie favorites?

Because they’re great, for one thing. And because they offer a refreshing spin on those timeworn classics.

Yeah, sure, both plays suffer slightly from over-familiarity. You know the angel Clarence is eventually going to get his wings in Broadway Palm’s “A Wonderful Life.” And as soon as you see that wooden crate in Florida Rep’s “A Christmas Story,” you know the leg lamp will soon be casting “the soft glow of electric sex” in the family window for all the neighbors to see.

Then again, there’s something comfortable about seeing these characters and these situations re-enacted onstage. The world outside might be turning crazy and violent, but at least things are calm and reassuring on these Fort Myers stages.

Out of the two plays, Florida Rep’s “A Christmas Story” is my clear-cut favorite. Director Jason Parrish and his cast win you over with their funny take on this nostalgic, cartoonish holiday movie.

Henry Crater is just about perfect as little Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red RyderBB gun and goes to great lengths to make sure Santa leaves him one under theChristmas tree. Crater is winningly goofy and hammy, particularly in the fantasy sequences where he visualizes himself as a cocky, gallant hero straight out of a radio melodrama.

Michael Scott strikes a nicely avuncular, charming tone as the older version of Ralphie recalling the events of December 1938.  And it’s hard not to laugh as Brendan Powers’ befuddled father opens that wooden crate with giddy, childlike glee; or launches into a full-blown turkey tantrum; or fake-curses with panache – “You sons of business!”

Rachel Burttram is just as funny as his flustered wife — especially when announcing each night’s monotonous dinner with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm (“Meatloaf and red cabbage!”) or barely restraining her laughter after “accidentally” knocking that beloved leg lamp to the ground.

Meanwhile, over at Broadway Palm, another holiday classic comes to life with the heartwarming “A Wonderful Life,” the musical version of the Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And, thankfully, the dinner theater does it while keeping the cheesiness to a minimum.

The songs by Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo are enjoyable enough but not particularly memorable. That’s OK, though: The story and characters are sturdy enough to pull you in despite the bland tunes.

Under Paul Bernier’s direction, the cast makes you almost forget about the original movie as it tells the story of the idealistic-but-depressed George Bailey, forced to set aside his dreams to keep the family bank afloat.

Jordan Goodsell plays George with a quiet reservation and a deep-seated passion that only explodes when he reaches a boiling point (just try not to cheer when he finally tells off wicked old miser Henry Potter, played by Kirk Lawrence). I would’ve liked to see more emotional range from Goodsell in Act 1, but he still charms in a low-key way and eventually bursts to life once the angry, brooding George appears in Act 2.

The rest of the cast is strong, too, including George’s luminous wife (Katherine Walker Hill); his comical friend Sam (Christopher Tuck); and the quirky, irrepressible angel Clarence (Jerry Sciarrio).

I liked the second act much better than the first, though, partly because there are fewer songs and partly because the story takes a darker, more gripping turn (such as the propulsive, nightmarish “Ghost of Christmas Future” scene). And the ending packs an emotional wallop that’ll have you reaching for your table napkin to dab your eyes.

So which show should you go see? Both, if you can.

Either one is well-worth the money. Which play you see depends on how you like your Christmas: Silly and funny (“A Christmas Story”), or heartwarming and emotional (“A Wonderful Life”).

Both shows would be a great gift to yourself this holiday season.