Chicago Theatre Review
An Angel Gets His Wings
It’s a Wonderful Life -American Blues Theatre
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 nonstop 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 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 16th anniversary remounting.
When audiences walk into the theatre at Stage 773 they’ll step back in time to the Golden Era of Radio. Cast members greet you with refreshments asking you to fill
out an audiogram that will 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 provide all the sound effects and incidental music. At last, following a short Christmas carol sing-along, the play begins.
The story has become so familiar that a synopsis isn’t necessary; but if it’s a new tale for some theatergoers, then this unique theatrical performance will offer a terrific first introduction. The company also salutes a member of the armed forces in the audience at each performance. The entire evening is just plain heartwarming and, 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 annual production of Capra’s beautifully-written piece at such a brisk pace that audiences barely notice the lack of an intermission in the 90-minute production.
Each talented ensemble member performs a range of roles with such vocal versatility that closing your eyes you’ll imagine a far larger cast. This radio adaptation is both faithful to the Capra classic and yet economical, providing every plot point and subtle nuance from the movie, and performed with energy, humor and pathos. Without resorting to an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart, Zane Kenney captures all the warmth and humor of George Bailey. In addition to tightly directing this production, Gwendolyn Whiteside beautifully plays Mary Bailey, practically a dead ringer for the film’s leading lady, Donna Reed. She’ll be seen in the role until December 20, when actress Camille Robinson assumes the role.
John Mohrlein offers unbelievable versatility playing, among several roles, both ornery Mr Potter and Clarence, George’s guardian angel. As profit hungry Potter, he brings to mind a certain Commander-in-Chief. Another versatile voice actor is Ian Paul Custer as George’s brother Harry, playing, as well, a number of other character parts. The magnificent Michael Mahler, who’s not only the show’s emcee and musical director, provides a smoothly played piano soundtrack for the radio play. Mr. Mahler also wrote the clever commercial jingles, which he sings with assistance from his lovely, talented wife, actress Dara Cameron. Ms. Cameron also plays Zuzu, Violet and several other roles in the play. Rounding out the cast with their terrific versatility is James Joseph portraying, among others, Uncle Billy; and Shawn J. Goudie is the show’s accomplished Foley artist.
A warm nostalgia pervades the theatre at Stage 773, partly because of Grant Sabin’s rich, gold metallic and red velvet-accented period set, festooned with colorful wreaths and Christmas trees; partly a result of Christopher J. Neville’s authentic-looking 1940’s costumes. But mostly this tender sentimentality can be attributed to the sincerity and commitment of the fine company of actors. The residents of Bedford Falls fully emerge in our imaginations, thanks to this outstanding ensemble. Watching the life of a man who sacrifices his own ambitions for the betterment of others is motivating. Tears fill our eyes as we behold an angel finally getting his wings. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic hasn’t looked or sounded this glorious since it first appeared in movie theatres back in 1946. Chicago’s annual American Blues Theater production would’ve made Mr. Capra proud.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 16-January 6 by American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.AmericanBluesTheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.