By Patrick O’Brien
It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s seasonal staple, came and went in 1946 without making any big ripples. But with a little faith, trust and a copyright snafu leading to cheap-as-free TV airings and home video distribution, today, the story of George Bailey, that most uncommon common man of Bedford Falls, is a bona fide American myth.
Nevertheless, there are obstacles in adapting the story to the stage. The nebulous copyright is one thing; it leaves the work open to adaptation, but by the same token, this will mean a “definitive” adaptation is unlikely. And there’s at least two musicals and an opera as competition already. For another thing, how does one compete with the film itself? With James Stewart and Donna Reed lassoing the moon? With Lionel Barrymore twirling his non-existent mustache? With some of the most iconic images in Christmas, nay, American cinema?
American Blues Theatre has an elegant solution: Do it like a contemporary radio play. Small, versatile cast cycling through a wide range of characters; some mics on stands; a sound effects guy; some music to set the mood; and no set pieces to move hither and thither to interrupt anything. Elegant, and a winning formula. The piece has played for 16 seasons, now going on 17.
It’s a well-tuned machine, to be sure, but not worn out. Quite the contrary; from the get-go, the performers are ingratiating, singing carols, cracking wise, and getting everyone up to speed on how things are going to work out. (Most importantly, applaud when the “applause” sign lights up.)
Once the machine gets going, they prove themselves more than up to the task of telling this story. And there’s drawing power to these roles, seeing as the majority of the players have returned season after season. Brandon Dahlquist playing George Bailey gives the role a uniquely discontented heart. Contrary to what its detractors may say, Wonderful Life isn’t a schmaltzy story, and George, his life perpetually deferred for the benefit of others, is unhappy with his lot, but can’t bring himself to say it out loud. It’s an angle that gives John Mohrlein’s turn as miser Potter that much extra push — he has an angle he can use to woo George to his side to monopolize his hold on the town.
All the more remarkable: Mohrlein also plays George’s guardian angel-in-training Clarence, who’s assigned to pull him back from a brink of Potter’s design. Among several others.
Aside from Dahlquist, everyone plays at least three other roles, and all can conjure them up with ease and clarity, thanks to artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside’s hand. Sound effects (by Shawn Goudie) do what they must — establish the scene with period radio-show authenticity — then get out of the way. And there must be music: Matt Edmonds assumes the announcer/music director role typically covered by Michael Mahler, and assumes it well, guiding the audience along with perfect confidence, and wringing out every ba-ba-ba-boo he can in the jazzy vocal arrangements of Christmas carols. (Mahler also wrote commercial jingles that pop up here and there, and all are catchy and effective; who else can rhyme “Commonwealth Edison” with “let us in?”)
It’s simple theater at its most basic — just words and music — and getting back to basics and looking around at what one has is what Christmas is for. American Blues had the notion to go back to basics and came up with a winning entryway into the season that has made ripples for sixteen-plus years. May there be many more.
“It’s a Wonderful Life—Live in Chicago” plays through January 5, 2019, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are here.