By Jane Recker
For many adults, the term “the holidays” no longer conjures the image of exchanging gifts on a snow-white Christmas Eve surrounded by loving family members.
Instead, our cynical generation immediately jumps to grumbling about the staggering growth of commercialism, stresses about shoveling the snow off the drive, and plots an escape plan to evade those relatives with questionable political views.
American Blues Theater’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! brings the holiday magic we’ve all been missing. This cozy, high-energy production is the perfect escape from an icy Chicago winter for the whole family.
This is the 16th year American Blues Theater has presented this holiday classic. The company aims to explore the American identity through the plays it produces, and what could be more American than Frank Capra’s classic tale? Though the film premiered in 1946, many of the messages ring true today. The story of George Bailey and all the sacrifices he makes for others shows just how much one man’s life can touch so many others.
The show’s plot follows that of the movie, but the setup is remarkably different: the production is not a play, but rather a live radio drama set in the 1940’s, complete with a small Foley studio in the corner featuring Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie (Foley studios were used in radio dramas to create sound effects with small physical objects).
While Bedford Falls – the town where the drama is set – features dozens of characters, their voices are created through the artistry of just six talented ensemble members. Ian Paul Custer provides comic relief with the wacky voice of Ernie the cab driver, and John Mohrlein shows off his versatility by nailing both the affect of Clarence the scattered angel and the scheming, ruthless Mr. Potter.
It’s Zach Kenney that carries the show as leading man George Bailey. His acting is superb; he brings a zest to the part that draws the audience in from the start and is able to play George’s decline from hopeful youth into desperate adulthood with the keen insight of a great actor. While he keeps the 1940’s bounciness to George, he smartly does away with Jimmy Stewart’s schtick and abhorrent Trans-Atlantic accent, making American Blues’ Bailey far more accessible than Capra’s.
In fact, the entire production feels infinitely closer to home than the movie due to the cast’s natural ability to engage the audience. The ensemble begins the show with a sing-along of familiar carols led by gifted instrumentalist and Music Director Michael Mahler, who alternates between guitar, ukulele and upright piano. At the close of the drama, the entire cast thanks the audience for coming by going around the theater with milk and holiday cookies, and happily chats with the audience as if they were old friends.
The atmosphere itself has a homey, friendly vibe. Set in a 1940’s style parlor, the ensemble is surrounded by red velvet curtains, a gold lamé backdrop, and enough Christmas decorations to cover a small house from scenic designer Grant Sabin; one almost expects there to be a crackling fire in the background.
The most touching part of the production comes during the drama’s “commercial breaks” where the cast reads out “audiograms” written by the audience. Before the show begins, audience members are invited to write messages to the loved ones who accompanied them to the show, which are then read by cast members onstage. The story of George Bailey’s rediscovery of the preciousness of life is interspersed with real messages of love and friendship, creating a sense of community between the audience and the cast.
With so much in the world consistently focusing on the negative, It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is a refreshing change of pace during a hectic holiday season.
This reminder of the beauty of life leaves audiences with warm, fuzzy feelings that linger long after they’ve left the theater.
American Blues Theater presents “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago, through January 6. More information and tickets may be found here. Photos by Michael Brosilow