By Barry Reszel
Why can’t Dara Cameron with husband Michael Mahler on piano greet entering patrons by crooning seasonally-appropriate duets, then be joined by members of the show’s stunningly talented ensemble for EVERY. SINGLE. PRODUCTION. performed from today going forward?
Call it a grown-up Christmas wish, along with world peace and a puppy (everyone of every age wants a puppy).
Sometimes setting the stage, particularly during the festivity-focused holiday season, is every bit as important as the show for which it’s set. And for 15 years now, American Blues Theater’s live 1940s radio broadcast of holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life has enthralled patrons to the point that the production is now a Chicagoland musical theatre seasonal ritual.
The incredible cast recreates the entire town and cast of characters of Philip Van Doren Stern‘s (original story) and Frank Capra‘s (film director) Bedford Falls. The production is highlighted with early 1920s-created Foley radio sound effects, Austin Cook‘s original score and holiday carols. The Bedford Falls “residents” extend their hospitality after every performance with milk and cookies served by the cast.
This year’s cast for It’s a Wonderful Life includes Brandon Dahlquist as George Bailey, as well as American Blues ensemble members and artistic affiliates Cameron (Violet), Ian Paul Custer (Harry), Shawn Goudie (Foley), James Joseph (Uncle Billy), Mahler (Announcer and musician), John Mohrlein (Clarence/Mr. Potter), who has not missed a performance of this show in its 15-year run, and Camille Robinson (Mary Bailey).
Indeed, this is a full-out ensemble piece involving the audience members in “real-lfe” radio giveaways during commercial breaks. Leads Dahlquist and Robinson make a strikingly handsome George and Mary. But it’s together, as family, that the splendid cast members act out this well-known story (a full synopsis may be read here) as much for each other and the assembled patrons as for their “radio listeners.” Which is, of course, the setup. This rendition allows audience members to feel almost backstage, let in on the magic of producing live entertainment. And therein lies its understated brilliance.
Director Gwendolyn Whiteside includes a lovely note in the “Backstage Guide” on the American Blues website and given to show patrons. “The story reminds us of the fragility of life,” she notes. “Frank Capra’s line, ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ resonates throughout the year. During the holidays it becomes a poignant reminder as we gather with our loved ones.” Whiteside’s theatrical loved ones backstage include Mahler (music director, jingle composer), Cook* (score), Grant Sabin (scenic design), Katy Peterson (lights), Christopher J. Neville (costumes), Goudie (Foley design), Elyse Dolan (props), Paul Deziel (video associate), Marty Higginbotham (original direction), Sarah E. Ross (production manager) and Kathryn Lochert* (stage manager).
It’s a Wonderful Life Live in Chicago! is truly more of a play with music and a healthy dose of seasonal carols before the show and at the production’s close than it is a choreographed musical theatre production. But a better theatrical cup of hot cocoa is not available this season.
American Blues Theater presents “It’s a Wonderful Life Live in Chicago!” through December 31 at Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.