Chicago Theatre Review
An Angel Gets His Wings
It’s a Wonderful Life – American Blues Theatre
The name George Bailey has become synonymous with Christmas since Frank Capra’s holiday classic first began airing on television nonstop during the 1980’s. Based upon “The Greatest Gift,” a short story privately published in 1945 by
Philip Van Doren Stern, this tale of a man who sacrifices all his own dreams to help his family and friends has 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.
When audiences walk into the theatre (this year at the Greenhouse Theater on Lincoln Avenue) they’ll step back in time to the Golden Era of Radio. Cast members greet you with refreshments asking if you’d care to fill out an audiogram that will be read during one of several commercial breaks during the broadcast. These can 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 the on-air ads, provide all the sound effects and incidental music. Finally, the cast warms up the audience with a short Christmas carol sing-along, and then the play begins.
The story has become so familiar that a synopsis isn’t necessary; but if it is unfamiliar then this theatrical experience will provide a wonderful first exposure. Suffice it to say, however, that in spite of its familiarity most of the audience had to choke back tears by the end. Marty Higginbotham has expertly directed this tightly-written piece at such a brisk pace audiences barely notice the lack of an intermission in this 90-minute production.
Each talented cast member performs a range of roles with such vocal versatility that closing your eyes you’ll picture a far larger ensemble on that tiny stage. Joe Landry’s radio adaptation is both faithful to the Capra classic and yet economical, providing every plot point and nuance from the story, and performed with energy, humor and pathos. Without resorting to an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart, Kevin R. Kelly has captured all the warmth inherent in George Bailey. Gwendolyn Whiteside beautifully plays Mary Bailey, almost looking like the film’s Mary, Donna Reed. John Mohrlein demonstrates unbelievable versatility playing, among several roles, both ornery Mr Potter and Clarence, George’s guardian angel. Another versatile vocal actor is Ian Paul Custer as George’s brother Harry, as well as a number of other character roles. Michael Mahler, who not only is the show’s announcer and emcee, provides seamless piano accompaniment for the radio play. Mahler also wrote the clever commercial jingles and sings them with assistance from his sister-in-law Denice Mahler (who also plays Violet and several other roles in the play). Rounding out the cast is James Joseph as, among others, Uncle Billy, and Shawn J. Goudie as Foley.
A warm, homey, nostalgic feeling pervades the atmosphere of the theatre, partly a result of Grant Sabin’s period studio set, but mostly due to the sincerity and commitment of this fine acting company. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic hasn’t looked or sounded this glorious since it first appeared in movie theatres back in 1946. This American Blues Theater production would’ve made Mr. Capra proud.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Nov. 24-Dec. 29 by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by visiting their website at www.americanbluestheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.