Like putting up a tree and lights or baking sweet holiday treats, the holiday season in Chicago wouldn’t be the holiday season without American Blues Theater’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! Now in its 18th year, the production transports audiences to WABT, a 1944 radio studio “broadcasting” live from Stage 773 on Belmont Avenue. A cast of six—plus a music director and foley artist—are all it takes to re-create Frank Capra’s classic holiday story as a radio drama that will warm your heart every bit as much as the James Stewart version.
As I thoroughly explored in my review last season, much about the production, directed by Gwendolyn Whiteside (who also stars as Mary Bailey), doesn’t change from year to year; in the four years running that I’ve seen the show, only the venue and a role or two have differed between productions, and none of these adjustments have compromised the festive experience in any way. Attending It’s A Wonderful Life is essentially an immersive experience; although you’re not up and about or in the middle of the production, you’re nevertheless surrounded by the show from the moment you enter the theater. With the cast already on stage, you’ll find your seat to their pre-show stylings including banter and jokes, Christmas carols, and a request to submit audiograms, short personal messages they’ll read out during act breaks. It’s all perfectly rehearsed and planned, of course, but that doesn’t take away from the charm of it all. Just try to stay grumpy around this jolly bunch.
Don’t let the radio play concept fool you; though the cast have their scripts on stage with them, this is far from an uneventful read-through. The whole show is choreographed beat by beat so the actors know exactly which of the three vintage-looking mics to step up to when foley artist Shawn Goudie, perhaps the true hero of the bunch who brings the show to life, can hit every cue for a door opening or phone ringing or car engine running. While most of the cast assumes a few roles throughout the show, Brandon Dahlquist centers the story as George Bailey, and while he’d never be mistaken for Stewart himself, he nevertheless infuses this classic role with charisma and depth, ushering George from his days as an assistant at Mr. Gower’s pharmacy to the manager of that old Building & Loan.
The production keeps so closely to Capra’s film that you might just catch yourself picturing each of the movie’s scenes as it unfolds in front of you. This is no knock against the live show; if anything, it’s a testament to the story’s enduring value. First released in 1946, Capra’s film version remains a mainstay for holiday viewing more than 70 years later. It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! will never replace the film, but as holiday traditions go, you could do far worse than add this one to the seasonal must-dos at the end of every year.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! runs through January 4, at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont); tickets run $19-$69. On December 8, ABT presents “It’s a Wonderful Party,” a benefit show including a pre-show reception and small bites. For more information, visit American Blues Theater online here.
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