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Jennifer Lines and Bob Frazer in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life. David Cooper

You wouldn't think a tale that begins with a desperate man on a snowy bridge contemplating suicide then jumping into the inky river below would make for much of a heartwarming Christmas tale.

But since it was released on film in 1946, It's a Wonderful Life has become one of the most enduring and beloved holiday stories – and one of the most successful annual productions at the Arts Club.

Vancouver actor Bob Frazer plays George Bailey, a good man who falls on hard times and feels like a failure, but learns his true worth from an angel named Clarence Oddbody, played by beloved local thespian Bernard Cuffling.

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So how has such a dark tale lasted so long? "One of my favourite lines is, 'No man is a failure that has friends.' And I tell you, that's the reason," director Dean Paul Gibson says after the show's 200th performance. "Whether you're Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, whatever – the message about being a decent human being is universal. And I think that's what prevails."

Now entering its fifth year, the Arts Club show has played to more than 70,000 audience members, who have watched wistfully as George discovers what Bedford Falls would have been like had he succumbed to that river and Clarence vies for his wings.

And even though he has seen the story dozens – or possibly hundreds – of times, Mr. Gibson says he can't help but still be stirred by his favourite moment.

"It's when George realizes he has a second chance, and he's running down the street in Bedford Falls, slipping and sliding and yelling to everybody he sees in that sort of giddy way," says Mr. Gibson. "He's giddy with life and joy and happy to be alive – and sincerely happy for a second chance. It's a wonderful thing."

It's a Wonderful Life is at the Granville Island Stage until Jan. 2 (artsclub.com).

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