It’s a Wonderful Life at Derby Dinner

By Bennett Duckworth
Contributing Writer

Derby Dinner Playhouse has been around for forty years now, but this was my first experience at the well-known Clarksville venue near the river next to the Clarion Hotel. Since 1974, it has offered food and entertainment to the area and I was always curious what it was like. After finally going last week, I can say what I took from it was an air of easy-going simplicity for a venue that probably requires complex logistical coordination in the balance of good food, service and entertainment.

When my lady and I entered the establishment, we passed a gift shop, visited the box office and then made our way to the theater entrance where we were greeted by a kind host who showed us to a table, which we shared with a pleasant older couple. Standard beverages and the buffet are included with admission. After ordering sodas, we made our way back to the large trays of comfort food that prepped my stomach for Thanksgiving.

Crispy fried chicken, dumplings, and a side salad with blue cheese dressing filled me up well. A menu was included in the show’s program with an extensive list of desserts and libations at reasonable prices. Later that night we would enjoy their Hummingbird Cake from Corydon, Indiana. This three-layered moist confection had bits of banana, pineapple and walnut with cream cheese icing that complemented my cup of bitter black coffee with true delight.

The servers were professionally efficient in their attentiveness – more so than I’ve experienced at other places I’ve recently frequented. As it was, with my only other dinner-theater experience, some of the servers were also performers in the night’s entertainment. Although, the other time I was in Eugene, Oregon seeing a performance of “Hair,” where we saw our lady server topless on stage at one point. I was pretty sure I’d be spared that awkwardness on this particular night’s show of “A Wonderful Life.”

If there was anything awkward about it… I don’t know if I want to go into how I feel about a musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it has been around since 1991 with music by Joe Raposo and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, charming nostalgic audiences who enjoy live singing and dancing. The Derby Dinner cast is a competent bunch, who performed with nice voices and strong projection.

While suspension of disbelief is a major part of the theater-going experience, it is really hard to get used to head-mounted microphones attached to the principal cast-members, which is a standard in many big stage shows, but in something closer to box-theater it’s very noticeable. There were a few artistic choices I questioned as well. George Bailey’s high school dance had people in wardrobe that looked appropriate enough for an underground jazz club in the ‘30s, but not for a small town, chaperoned dance at that time. Also, like many movie-to-stage adaptations, there sure are way too many scene changes breaking the momentum that stage drama needs to keep an audience engaged.

However, as I looked around the large room, filled with hundreds of faces gazing at poor George Bailey trudging his way through the thankless hardships in trying to be a good man and, well… singing about it, I recognized a common spellbound expression as though many were escaping into a place that made them feel warm and worry-free.

It’s the story in “A Wonderful Life,” based on a 1943 short story titled, “The Greatest Gift,” that’s resonated with people for decades. It’s interesting to think that the 1946 movie was a flop, but it slowly became a classic from return engagements in the years that followed. Now, it’s a cultural staple for the holidays, and a reaction to seasonal depression, when it’s easy to dwell on the overwhelming burdens life can bring. Like “A Christmas Carol,” it involves a supernatural being aiding the protagonist, not to grant magical wishes, but to simply give the character perspective on who he is and what he means to others.

That night, its natural message was communicated in a gathering of respectful audience members, who got to avoid the heavier formalities associated with some other theater establishments.

“A Wonderful Life” will continue at the Playhouse through the end of the year. For ticket information on their upcoming lineup of shows, including plays, children’s theater and concerts, visit www.derbydinner.com.