I had to check the archives to be sure, but I can now say with certainty I’ve seen American Blues Theater’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! no fewer than five times. As a happily returning customer, I can also say certainly that now more than ever, the show remains an absolutely delightful, deeply moving production of a deceptively profound story that is happily revisited year after year.
Though it’s been presenting It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! for 20 years now, American Blues Theater has always counted on the kindness of the Chicago theater community to host their productions. From Victory Gardens’ Biograph Theater to Stage 773, the show finds its home wherever the ensemble hangs their hats, and every year, it works. For 2022, the ensemble finds yet another new host in the Chopin Theatre off Milwaukee Ave; it’s an open and welcoming space, and the theater is adorned in holiday decorations from footlights to rafters—there’s even space for a few cabaret-style tables for two on stage level, a nice touch to an already welcoming atmosphere.
Over the two decades since the theater’s artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside debuted the show she also directs each year, blessedly little has changed about it. Like your family’s favorite stuffing or holiday cookie recipe, it’s fine to play with an ingredient here or there, but in the end, it has to be what’s known and loved best to be the real deal. Six actors make up the show’s cast, plus a Foley artist providing sound effects and a music director underpinning the show with a festive and energetic soundtrack. Very few in this cast change over the years, a testament to the players’ bond with each other and the material. On a bittersweet note this year, long-time cast member John Mohrlein is present only in memory, having died in late 2021.
Presented as a radio play in front of a live studio audience, half the charm of the production is the ensemble’s commitment to the bit (the other half being, of course, the timeless holiday narrative). Stepping into the theater is stepping into a time machine back to 1944, and the show, though presented without intermission, is paused more than once for brief messages from sponsors (and touching “audiograms” as submitted by the audience). There are carols sung pre-show and a sing-a-long finale, with laughs, drama and (at least on my part) a few tears shed along the way. For as long as this cast and creative team has been presenting the show, you’d never know it by their performances; every actor on stage is engaged, enthusiastic and perfectly tuned into the room and those in it.
There are many, many options for holiday theater in Chicago (and we’ve reviewed some of them right here at Third Coast Review), and truthfully you probably can’t go wrong with whatever you choose. But if Frank Capra’s classic film holds a special place in your heart (and honestly, even if it doesn’t), It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! remains an innovative, immersive new way to enjoy a perennial favorite and a more than perfect way to ring in the holiday season. Catch it through December 23 at the Chopin Theatre for an infusion of holiday spirit and goodwill this year. Or if you can’t, mark your calendars for 2023, when American Blues Theater will finally, wonderfully have their own permanent home in Lincoln Square in which to present this classic and more. I know I’ll be there; I’ll save you a seat.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago presented by American Blues Theater, runs Wednesday-Sunday through December 23 at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division). Tickets are $25-$55 and available online.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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