It’s A Wonderful Life: Live In Chicago! 2015

From the Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Lifewonderful2015

Based on the Philip Van Doren Stern story “The Greatest Gift”

Directed by Gwendolyn Whiteside

Music Direction by Michael Mahler

Produced by the American Blues Theater

At the Greenhouse Theater Center

“Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!”

It’s a Wonderful Show!

In 1945, Philip Van Doren Stern published a short story called “The Greatest Gift”; it was on this story that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was based in 1946, when it made its film premier. Following its debut on the silver screen, It’s a Wonderful Life was soon adapted for the radio in the late 40s and early 50s – this being near the close of what is commonly called the “Golden Age of Radio.” It is this world – not only the world of It’s a Wonderful Life but the world in which radio still prevailed as a premier medium of entertainment – that American Blues Theater’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! seeks to recreate. Happily, it does so successfully, complete with holiday carols, live foley artistry, 1940s-style commercials, audience audiograms, and all the hearth-warm nostalgia with which we have come to view that quainter time.

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For those unfamiliar with It’s A Wonderful Life, it is the story of George Bailey (Zach Kenney), a good-natured, happy-go-lucky young man with dreams of leaving his small hometown of Bedford Falls and going to college, building great things, and travelling the world. His dreams are postponed, however, when his father dies suddenly from a heart attack and he takes control of his father’s business, the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, in order to keep it from the greedy, monopolizing hands of Mr. Potter (John Mohrlein).

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Many quiet years pass before George finally marries his sweetheart Mary (Amanda Tanguay). But – as though to mock his first personal satisfaction in years with the punctuation of misfortune – fate sees to it that George and Mary’s honeymoon is postponed (indefinitely) due to the 1929 Crash. For, in order to keep his business from dissolving, George pays his lenders out of his own pocket from the money saved for the honeymoon.

Fast-forward another couple years: George and Mary have children, and then WWII breaks out. Here, too, George finds himself locked into his smalltown life: while his younger brother Harry (Jarrod Zimmerman) goes off to earn himself the Medal of Honor and a lucrative career out East, George is prevented from enlisting due to a health defect.

The final straw lands when George’s Uncle Billy (James Joseph) misplaces 8 thousand dollars of company money during a bank audit. Driven to despair, George climbs the town bridge to end his life. Yet his children’s prayers have reached heaven, and so it is up to his guardian angel (also played by John Mohrlein) to convince George that his life is valuable, “wonderful” even – that had he not lived, the world would have been a much darker place.

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This will be the 14th year of American Blues Theater’s annual production of this show. But for those who have never seen this show (like me, before this year’s production), let me address what for me was a point of confusion and skepticism about the production: the “radio” aspect.

What in the name of Christmas is a radio show doing being performed on stage, you might rightly ask yourself, and how in the holly is it going to be entertaining?

Well, when you enter the theatre, you find the stage is designed like a 1940s radio studio – a Christmas tree, a foley booth, a piano, mic stands, a window overlooking a snowy downtown – for which you are the live audience. The announcer/pianist (Michael Mahler) warms you up with some holiday carols and an interactive what’s-that-jingle game, and then it’s time to go “On Air” with the production. The actors mill about in their 1940s attire, warming up their voices, and before you know it – the “On Air” sign lights red and the actors are transforming their voices and mannerisms into a medley of characters that bring to life the world of Bedford Falls. And if even this itself sounds dubious – as though not even a man performing live foley effects and actors assuming the voices of various characters seem entertaining – let me correct you as one who had the very same misgivings: it is entertaining – and more.

It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly a feel-good, heart-warming story – par excellence. Normally, I am repulsed by such stories – their blatant attempt to crawl under my cynical skin and dare to make me feel something of such simply-drawn caricatures of greed and altruism– but, as even James Bond once said, “I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me.” And that is exactly what this story does – and, in particular, American Blues Theater’s production of it: from the moment the jolly announcer leads you (at first, perhaps begrinchingly) through his favorite holiday carol, your holiday skeptic’s armor is punctured; until, at the end, you’re straining your tear ducts to hold back the tears you are still too proud to cry openly.

The added delight of American Blues Theater’s radio production is the “story-within-a-story” feature of the 1940s radio set. It’s a full barrage of cozy nostalgia. Whether or not the 40s – or Bailey’s 20s and 30s – were as naively cheery and idyllic as we like to depict them (as they are depicted here and in the story proper) – whether or not, moreover, human nature ever allowed for so much unbridled happiness – is beside the point here. This is a production designed to inspire such feelings and to give one hope in one’s better self by their very stirring. This is, after all, a holiday production.

To add more praise to the production (though one need not have any doubts on this matter), the acting is spectacular. As I wrote above, all the actors play multiple parts or younger selves of their characters. Zach Kenney captures George Bailey’s bursting, joyous enthusiasm and overawed humility wonderfully – my God, an earnest tear streaked down his face and I could barely hold back my own. His and Amanda Tanguay’s (as Mary) on-stage chemistry in the “courting” scene was so sweet and tenderly awkward I practically melted in love. And Michael Mahler as the announcer embodies such honest affability – and humor! – you’ll want to take him for drinks afterwards. (Luckily, you can settle for milk and cookies, an after-show treat served by the cast.)

Enough can’t be said about the quaint beauty of this production. Though I have never seen it before, I am told that new this year are some cast members, an updated pre-show, and more music (a barbershop quartet, even). Perfect for kids and adults of all ages, American Blues Theater’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is sure to bring joyful laughter and heartfelt tears to all; a fitting complement to the holiday season.

August Lysy

Austin.Lysy@gmail.com

Reviewed on November 25th, 2015

Highly Recommended

Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $19 – $49. For tickets and information, call the Greenhouse Theater Center box office at 773-404-7336, or visit AmericanBluesTheater.com. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm, with additional performances Sunday Dec. 20th at 5:30 pm, Wednesday Dec. 23rd at 2:30 pm, and Sundays Dec. 27th at 5:30 pm. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.