An angel gets his wings

‘It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!’

Ian Paul Custer, Dara Cameron, Gwendolyn Whiteside and Brandon Dahlquist in It's A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Ian Paul Custer, Dara Cameron, Gwendolyn Whiteside and Brandon Dahlquist in It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

What’s undoubtedly the most popular, best-loved holiday movie of all time? Well, here’s a hint: The name George Bailey has become synonymous with Christmas since Frank Capra’s holiday classic first began airing on television during the 1980’s.

Based upon “The Greatest Gift,” a short story privately published in 1945 by Philip Van Doren Stern, this captivating tale of a man who sacrifices all of his own dreams to help his family and friends has now become a timeless classic.

Most audiences will be familiar with the 1946 b&w film which is just about as perfect as anyone can expect. But American Blue Theater’s version takes this classic one step further, especially in this polished, eighteenth anniversary remounting.

When audiences walk into the Stage 773 theatre they’ll step back in time to the Golden Era of Radio. Cast members greet theatergoers with refreshments and ask if you’d care to fill out an audiogram that’ll be read during one of several commercial breaks during the broadcast. These may include birthday greetings, anniversary wishes or other personal messages of love and encouragement.

Before the actual radio play begins, the audience is introduced to the talented eight-member ensemble who play all the roles including supplying the real-life musical commercials, and even provide all the sound effects and incidental music.

Following a short Christmas carol sing-along, the radio play begins. The story has become so familiar that a synopsis isn’t necessary, but if it’s a new Christmas chronicle for theatergoers, then this unique theatrical performance will offer a terrific introduction.

The company also salutes a member of the armed forces in the audience at each performance. The entire evening is, quite simply, just plain heartwarming. Suffice it to say that despite the story’s familiarity, most of the audience was choking back tears by the end.

Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside has expertly guided this eighteenth annual revival of Capra’s beautifully-written piece. She paces her production at such a brisk tempo that audiences barely notice the lack of an intermission in the 90-minute production.

Brandon Dahlquist and John Mohrlein. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Brandon Dahlquist and John Mohrlein. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Each of the eight talented ensemble members perform a range of roles with such vocal versatility that, if you close your eyes, you’ll imagine a far larger cast.

This radio adaptation is both faithful to the Capra classic and yet economical, providing every major plot point and subtle nuance from the movie. The show’s performed with energy, humor and pathos.

Brandon Dahlquist captures all the warmth and humor of George Bailey without being an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart.  In addition to guiding this production, artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside beautifully plays Mary Bailey, practically a dead ringer for the film’s leading lady, Donna Reed. Whiteside also plays several other characters including George Bailey’s loving mother.

The incomparable John Mohrlein offers unbelievable versatility playing, among several roles, both ornery Mr Potter and Clarence, George’s guardian angel. As profit-hungry Potter, he subtly brings to mind America’s current Commander-in-Chief.

Another versatile voice actor is the talented Ian Paul Custer as George’s brother Harry plus a variety of other characters. The charismatic and mega-talented Michael Mahler is not only the show’s emcee and musical director, but he provides the smooth, live piano soundtrack for the radio play, composed by Austin Cook.

Mahler also wrote the clever commercial jingles which he sings with glee, assisted by his wife, the lovely, talented actress/singer, Dara Cameron. She also plays Zuzu, Violet and several other roles in the play

Rounding out this adaptable cast are eloquent James Joseph portraying, among others, Uncle Billy, and Shawn J. Goudie, as an accomplished Foley artist, who provides all of the sound effects for the story.

A nostalgic ambiance envelopes the intimate venue at Stage 773, thanks in part, to Grant Sabin’s rich, gold, red and green velvet holiday setting festooned with colorful wreaths and Christmas trees courtesy of Elyse Dolan’s set dressing and properties design.

The stage is beautifully bathed in mood lighting designed by Katy Peterson and Christopher J. Neville’s authentic-looking 1940’s costumes provide the actors with just the right look.

But much of the warm tenderness of this production must be attributed to the sincerity and commitment of American Blues Theater’s outstanding company of actors.

Thanks to this remarkable ensemble cast, all the residents of Bedford Falls fully emerge in our imagination. Watching this story of one man who admirably sacrifices all of his own ambitions in order to help others is truly inspiring, especially today. Theatergoers may tear up as they witness an angel finally getting his wings.

Frank Capra’s Christmas classic hasn’t looked or sounded this glorious since it first appeared in movie theaters back in 1946. But American Blues Theater’s annual production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” would’ve definitely made Capra proud.

DETAILS: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” is an American Blues theater production at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicgo, through Jan. 4, 2020. Running time: 90 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 654-3103 or by visit AmericanBluesTheater.

Colin Douglas

Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting theatreinchicago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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