By Eric Karas
American Blues Theater presents its holiday tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago. This is their 18th year doing the show. It’s a “radio play” of the Frank Capra classic film about a small town man who finds out what life would be like if he never existed.
When patrons arrive in the theater they find it decked out with Christmas trees and lights everywhere. Grant Sabin’s scenic design is appropriate for a holiday show and a radio station. Members of the cast are already singing Holiday songs. It lets audience members know this will be a special evening of celebration and joy. There is a sing along with the audience as well as some performances and audience interaction. Michael Mahler plays all the music in the show, is the musical director and even plays some of the characters; his bank examiner is particularly memorably funny.
Once the play begins it is presented as a live radio broadcast with the cast performing all the various characters from the film with different voices. They have a foley artist Shawn J Goudie presenting all the sound effects. His performance is so seamless that after a while, the audience forgets he’s there and totally buys into the world of Bedford Falls.
The cast has to play all the characters and they are excellent. The show is anchored by Brandon Dahlquist as George Bailey who brings all the humanity and emotion needed to center the piece. John Mohrlein has a real balancing act, he plays the funny sweet angel Clarence and also the nasty greedy villain Mr Potter. He excels at both, although his Mr Potter is really memorable.
Ian Paul Custer is the cast member who really steals the show. He plays brother and war hero Harry Bailey but it’s all the other characters he plays with various accents that bring huge amounts of humor. Whether he’s a gruff cab driver or an Italian immigrant, Custer is very funny.
Gwendolyn Whiteside is the artistic director, the director of the show and plays Mary Bailey among other characters. Dara Cameron plays man-crazy Violet and others. They are both very endearing when they play little girls, the girl versions of their main characters and later as George’s children, including Zuzu. James Joseph is befuddled Uncle Billy and other characters, he’s a great ballast to the show.
Whiteside’s direction seems natural for a radio show and for recreating this famous piece. Katy Peterson Viccellio’s lighting is subtle but very effective dramatically at key moments.
Other elements of this production that make it a special evening include 1940’s style radio commercials for local businesses, recognition of local service members and telegrams read out by the cast submitted by the audience to each other. The telegrams can be funny or repetitive depending on the audience’s creativity level. At the very end as the audience leaves there is an additional touch to leave the audience feeling happy as children no matter their age.
As Holiday theater goes there aren’t many productions as charming, moving or interactive as this one.
American Blues Theater presents “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, through January 4. More information and tickets are available here.