It’s a Wonderful Life:The Radio Play 2010 at ATC

It’s a Wonderful Life:  The Radio Play

It’s a Wonderful Life:  The Radio Play

Adapted from the film by:  Frank Capra

Directed by:  Jason W. Gerace

At American Theater Company

Christmas Classic Still a Treat.

This is a show I have heard about for years, but this was my first experience with this renowned holiday classic.  It’s a Wonderful Life is the quintessential holiday tale of George Bailey familiar to most and regarded as perhaps the best Christmas movie ever made.  To take this story and set it in a 1940s radio studio complete with commercials and a foley artist is a great concept, and it is clear why this show has become a staple of the Holiday Season in Chicago.

atcwonderful life 2010

We open in the WATC radio station where the announcer (Chris Amos) introduces the story of George Bailey (Chris McLinden).  The station is complete with old-time microphones, an applause sign, a pianist (Cheryl Parkes), and a foley artist (Rick Kubes).  The story is interspersed with nostalgic sounding commercials for local businesses and personalized “audiograms” that patrons can fill out prior to the show.  This personalizes the experience and adds retro charm to the evening.  The set-up and concept are wonderful, but the evening as a whole left me desiring more.

atc wonderful life 2010

This is a story that is teeming with humanity and goodwill, and connection between the characters must be strong even if you are speaking into microphones and reading from scripts.  Chris Amos is a joy.  He exudes charm, class, and wonderful comedic timing as the master of ceremonies.  Even though he only provided a few voices in the story, each of his characters was spot on and captivating.  Veteran actor Alan Wilder creates a rigid, heartless Potter alongside a child-like, endearing Clarence.  The contrast between the vocal qualities of these characters is so vast if you didn’t see Mr. Wilder in front of you, you would never believe it was the same actor.  Mary Winn Heider as gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Mary Hatch.  Hers is the most honest, alive, and connected of the evening.  Tyler Ravelson adds a variety of voices that entertain and delight as well.

What I was uncertain of was Chris McLinden’s performance as George Bailey.  It felt flat and monotonous, rather than a brimming with the energy of starry-eyed dreamer out to conquer the world.  The emotional ups and downs of George Bailey are drastic and I never felt that he was pushed to the end of his rope or discovered the true value of his life.  Perhaps this is part of the 1940s radio technique, but this vocal choice detracted from my emotional connection to George which one of the main reasons this story is so treasured.  Mr. McLinden looks the part, and succeeds marvelously in the scene after his father’s death when Potter threatens the Building & Loan, but needs to find the humanity in George that so many people connect with.  Today, more than ever, I think a lot of us can relate to the plight of George Bailey.

Director Jason W. Gerace keeps the show moving at a brisk pace reminiscent of 1940s radio, but the pace does hinder the emotional impact of the story.  Rick Kubes deserves a well earned round of applause for his foley work.  I found myself more enthralled with the sound effects and commercial breaks at times.  I am actually curious to see how the show would feel if I had kept my eyes closed throughout the evening.  The set transports us to a different time and all of the design elements create an inviting atmosphere in which to spend the evening.  It is definitely a show that celebrates the spirit of the season.

Although this production does not fully bring the heart and humanity of this classic tale to life, it does promise a rather enjoyable evening. Free Milk and Cookies after every performance are an added bonus.   It’s a Wonderful Life is a story that can be seen and heard time and time again without losing its emotional resonance to those who are familiar with the movie, and for those going through a difficult time.  No matter how cold it is outside, this show is likely to warm your heart.

Recommended

Jake Lindquist

At American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St, Chicago, IL.. Tickets:  Previews $10 rush tickets at the door, or reserved seats for $30.  Thursdays & Matinees $35; Friday & Saturday evenings $40.  Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays & Sundays at 3:00 PM.  For tickets call 773-409-4125 or visit www.atcweb.org.  Running time is approx. 80 min with no intermission.  Through Dec. 30 2010.