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'A Wonderful Life' is pretty wonderful

'It's a Wonderful Life," Frank Capra's favorite among his 50 films, was not wonderfully received at its 1946 premiere. Several musicals based on Capra's now-beloved movie also flopped. Most of them deserve their fate. But Sheldon Harnick, surviving creator of "A Wonderful Life," returning for a second go-round at the Engeman Theater at Northport (the first in 2007), should take heart.

Since his composing partner on the project, Joe Raposo (best known for "Sesame Street"), died in 1989, Harnick (best known for "Fiddler on the Roof") has refined "A Wonderful Life" to the point where it seems close to prime-time-ready.

Gone are a couple of songs that bogged down a challenging expository burden. Snappier arrangements of the show's most captivating tunes -- credit musical director James Cunningham, choreographer Jennifer Werner and director John Simpkins -- make this a musical that reminds you of the movie without constantly being diminished by comparison.

Lance Rubin as Sam Wainwright, George Bailey's rich friend and former classmate, leads a Charleston number ("In a State") that blows away the movie's dance scene until its big finish (the film trumps with a pool-under-the-gym-floor splashdown). A few scenes/years later -- Mary (luminous Alison Walla) has returned from college while George (earthy Will Reynolds) is still holding the bag at his deceased father's savings and loan -- the "Good Night" duet could be straight out of Sondheim's "Company."

The title number gets a few ironic reprises, while "Precious Little," which encapsulates George's turn from tender to suicidal, reveals an insecurity that explains his desperation. The tender is supported by Walla's "I Couldn't Be With Anyone But You" and the suicidal by George's confrontation with little brother Harry, which isn't part of the film.

For those of you who've never paid attention to the movie, George gets caught in a scandal caused by the absent-mindedness of his Uncle Billy (Bruce Rebold) and the avaricious bitterness of small-town big shot Henry Potter (Ryan Hilliard). Humanizing this Bedford Falls landscape (Michael Schweikardt's versatile scenic design, Michelle Eden Humphrey's period costumes and Chris Dallos' dramatic lighting) are Phyllis March and Ronald Brown as Ma and Pa Bailey; Jordan Stanley as Harry; Summer Broyhill as Violet, the town flirt; and Evan Teich and Jeremy Morse as cop Bert and cabbie Ernie.

John Shuman as underwhelming guardian angel Clarence adds cosmic and comic relief to an increasingly dark tale, bringing the inspired see-what-life-would-be-without-you conceit to a spiritual high-five.

WHAT "A Wonderful Life," musical based on the similarly titled movie

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, plus additional December matinees and evening performances, through Jan. 8 at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.

INFO $60; engemantheater.com, 631-261-2900

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