1940’s come alive in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Custer, Cameron, Robinson, Dahlquist, Joseph, Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Custer, Cameron, Robinson, Dahlquist, Joseph, Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

If you haven’t been invited to a holiday party yet or are just feeling ready to get into the Christmas spirit, you can’t do much better than the American Blues Theater’s staged radio show version of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life-Live in Chicago!.”

In this production, the theater is set up to give the illusion that you are part of the studio audience for a live radio broadcast in 1944 at WABT Studio on Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

There is a spinet piano, stage left, and three old-timey microphones on stands across the front where most of the action takes place.

Stage right is an array of apparatus where Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie will add sound effects. Above the piano is a lighted sign which displays the words “On Air” and “Applause.”

As we entered the theater some of that cast was already gathering, having causal conversations and singing Christmas songs. Eventually they got more and more attention as the show officially began.

This is indeed a bona fide radio-style performance with each person playing several characters in different voices aided by requisite sound effects to emphasize or augment the dialog in lieu of visual cues.

The story that needs little description for many people familiar with the perennial favorite Christmas movie starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.

Similarly, the production has become a perennial Chicago favorite performed by this company since 2002.

(front L-R) Ian Paul Custer, Brandon Dahlquist, John Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
(front L-R) Ian Paul Custer, Brandon Dahlquist, John Mohrlein
(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

In summary, our hero, George Bailey who grew up with dreams of great adventure and world travel, is essentially stuck in his home town of Bedford Falls looking after the family building and loan business.

Brandon Dahlquist does an admirable job with this iconic role being careful not to simply imitate James Stewart, but rather making it his own and giving George his own spin.

His nemesis, Mr. Potter, is a mean old man that owns the bank and most of the town and won’t be happy until he gets the little bit that the Baileys control as well.

Suffice it to say that at some point, thanks to an error made by Uncle Billy Bailey (James Joseph), George begins to feel the weight of the world crashing down around him.

Coming to the idea that the money from his own life insurance can set things right he concludes that he is worth more dead than alive.

Luckily for him George’s guardian angel, Clarence, steps in to reveal how he has positively influenced his family, friends and community, demonstrating that he has indeed lived a “Wonderful Life.”

Veteran actor John Mohrlein plays both Clarence and Mr. Potter carefully distinguishing each with his own individual personality and vocal quality which the actor has done for 17 years.

This might be a bit challenging for some younger audience members to follow at first, but once you get into the rhythm you begin to delight in the skill of the actors as they move seamlessly from role to role.

Camille Robinson plays George’s love interest, Mary Bailey, and his mother.  Ian Paul Custer is busy appearing as several characters including brother, Harry Bailey. Dara Cameron’s primary role is Violet, Bedford Falls’ sex symbol.

The talented Matt Edmonds on piano sets the tempo for the performance playing Austin Cook’s original score while voicing a few characters from his position at the keyboard and also acting as the radio station’s announcer and master of ceremonies.

This is a story that could become a bit tedious, even maudlin, if acted out traditionally, but in this format the pacing is snappy and fun with just enough pathos to provide a range of emotion and set us up for the big feel-good ending.

There is no intermission but the story is interrupted a couple of times for commercial breaks that are also performed by various members of the ensemble.

The breaks are comprised of jingles for actual Chicago area businesses cleverly composed by musical director Michael Mahler to provide a local flavor before returning to the radio drama.

Director Gwendolyn Whiteside has done a fine job managing the action on Grant Sabin’s cozy set.

If you are a fan of “Prairie Home Companion” or “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on Public Radio you certainly will enjoy this show. Also, if you have children or grandchildren unfamiliar with live radio this is a good introduction to how entertainment was made for a few short years between vaudeville and television.

DETAILS: “It’s A Wonderful Life – Live In Chicago!” by American Blues Theater is at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave., Chicago, through Jan. 5, 2019. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call (773) 327-5252 or visit Stage 773.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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