MUST SEETheatre Reviews

It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph

Based on the film by Frank Capra

Directed by Marty Higginbotham

At Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

A heartwarming treat made with care and delivered with love

Despite its less-than-stellar reception in 1946, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has slowly but surely entered the American lexicon of mythology as a holiday staple. American Blues Theater continues its much beloved and much lauded tradition of performing the seasonal staple, now moved to the larger Biograph Theater (though soon to move again to a permanent residence at The Greenhouse Theater). Even if you’ve seen the movie every year and know the lines by heart, this remains an endearingly nostalgic way to experience the classic communally. A splendid cast of voice actors and a live Foley sound set invite you to imagine yourself in 1944 at a live radio broadcast of the story of Bedford Falls’ resident reluctant saint and the angelic visit that saves him from a Christmas Eve tragedy.

As recognizable and sentimentally veneered as a Norman Rockwell painting, several plot points for Wonderful Life are lifted from the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern with Capra’s working-class heroism adding his signature embellishment. Despite dreams of seeing the world and shaking the small town dust off his shoes, eldest brother George Bailey (Kevin R. Kelly) finds himself continually pulled back to the life he never wanted while others around him go on to greatness. Heading his father’s ever-struggling Building and Loan as a bulwark against the scheming Mr. Potter  (John Mohrlein), he marries his childhood sweetheart Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) and settlers into more-or-less domestic bliss. When ditzy Uncle Billy (James Joseph) misplaces a big deposit, George’s despair reaches the breaking point. Only some divine intervention from the wingless guardian angel Clarence (also John Mohrlein) can grant him the life-saving gift of seeing exactly what his existence has been worth in the parallel Pottersville hellscape where he was never born.

As adapted for this staged simulation by American Blues Theater and original director Marty Higginbotham (since 2004), Wonderful Life has been shortened to its core elements with no time to linger (after all, you can’t have dead air on live radio). The brisk pacing and rapid-fire character shifts of the actors keeps the production nimble but no less heartwarming. While Kelly creates his own version of George that is equal in strength to the famous Stewart incarnation, it’s the indelible Mohrlein who steals the show with his deliciously snide Potter and lovable Clarence (this is his 11th season in the role). With sound effects from Foley operator Shawn J. Gouldie and Michael Mahler on piano, the entire ensemble is on perfect point for this seasonal nostalgia that is a delightfully immediate way to share the joy of the season with friends and family. Audience members are even invited to write audiograms to go out “on the air” to their loved ones in the audience, read at regular intervals along with the 40s-style jingles sung in honor of the production’s sponsors.

Following the show, the period-dressed cast hands out milk and cookies as you exit. It’s an apt symbol of the precedings—a sweet, homely little treat delivered with much love and enthusiasm that goes straight to the gut. I encourage everyone to stay a bit and bask in the festive glow of so many recently-warmed hearts, maybe get to know a neighbor or two, and reflect without cynicism on the gift that has been one’s life thus far lived and yet to come.

Highly Recommended.

Reviewed by Clint May

Date Reviewed: December 6,  2012

For more info checkout the It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph page at

At Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL; call 773.871.3000 or visit; tickets $19-49; performances Thursdays and Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 5 and 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm running time 90 minutes with no intermission; through December 30.

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