Review: Capra Classic as Radio Play in American Blues Theater’s Wonderfully Festive It’s a Wonderful Life

I should disclose at the outset that American Blues Theater's 17th annual production of It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is a bit of a tradition for me. A huge fan of the Frank Capra film, I heard about the local storefront production in 2016 and took myself to see it that holiday season. I loved it so much that the next year, I gave a handful of good friends tickets to see it in 2017 (with me, of course).  When it opened this year, I jumped at the chance to see this absolute gem of a holiday production in 2018, this time with the ability to share its feel-good festive spirit with you dear readers. Image courtesy of American Blues Theater. This third go 'round marks the third different stage I've seen the show on, as American Blues Theater hosts its shows at various venues around the city. But no matter. They could present this one out of the back of a pickup truck, and I'd be there with bells on. In 2016, it was at the Greenhouse Theater Center; in 2017, ABT moved to Stage 773, and the show was in their Thrust theater that year, a theater-in-the-round style venue that gave the feeling of being in a cozy living room. This year, it moved to a more traditional space at Stage 773 (with just as many seats, thankfully), and though it may change stages each year, I'm happy to report it never loses a single bit of its charm. And that's largely because this radio play version of the classic holiday story is essentially a word-for-word adaptation of the 1946 film, from Clarence the Angel getting to know George Bailey as a kid, to crotchety old Mr. Potter doing his best to buy up every corner of Bedford Falls. The theater is transformed into a WABT radio studio (get it) as six actors split up the roles, with a foley artist (Shawn Goudie) and an emcee/pianist (Matt Edmonds) off to either side of the stage. There's an "on air" and "applause" light for the sake of the live studio audience, and no fewer than four different Christmas trees fill out the stage. Directed by Gwendolyn Whiteside, there's a certain choreography to the whole thing, as the actors hit their cues like clockwork at the three standing mics at center stage, keeping the action moving at quite a clip. The cast changes a bit from year to year, with the glowing exception of John Mohrlein, who's been Clarence, Mr. Potter and a variety of minor characters every year of the production's 17-year run. Brandon Dahlquist (George Bailey), Dara Cameron (Violet and others), Ian Paul Custer (Harry Bailey and others), James Joseph (Uncle Billy and others) and Camille Robinson (Mary Bailey and others) are all veterans of the production, and the consistency lends a feeling of familiarity to the affair, like receiving a holiday card from distant family each year, always the same but always a bit different. And make no mistake: the fact that It's a Wonderful Life is presented as a radio play doesn't mean the ensemble can rest on their laurels as performers. Quite the opposite, as everyone's on stage the whole time, alert and engaged from the moment the show goes "live." As if Capra's classic isn't enjoyable enough, there's no shortage of holiday cheer as the production leans into the kitsch of it all. From carol sing-alongs before the show to "commercial breaks" with '40s era jingles (for very real sponsors) and audiograms from audience members, it's an evening designed to leave you full of holiday spirit. Cynics need not apply for this warm and wonderful experience; or maybe they should, more than the rest of us, to banish the bah-humbugs once and for all. It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! runs through January 5 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets range from $19-$59 and are available online here.

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Lisa Trifone