Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association
For the last 19 years, Chicago’s American Blues Theatre has presented its own take on Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, but presenting it as a 40s-style live radio play with an audience (think Prairie Home Companion). This year, with COVID limiting everything, ABT’s Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside decided that, like so many other companies, they would take the show online. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a nearly perfect fit for both this format and these times.
This live Zoom version may lack the cozy, holiday-themed set that ABT has traditionally used, but it maintains all of the warmth, friendliness, and magic. With multi-instrumentalist Michael Mahler providing the music (and Dara Cameron lending her lovely voice in the pre-show), this production charms even before the story begins. Once it does, Capra’s classic comes to life through very strong work from a cadre of exceptional actors.
Brandon Dahlquist leads the cast as George Bailey, the big-dreamer turned local bank owner and family man in the small town of Bedford Falls who, through a series of mishaps largely engineered by the wealthy and exploitative Mr. Potter (an excellent John Mohrlein), finds himself at the end of his rope and believing that the only way out is suicide. Mohrlein is also perfect as Clarence, the fledgling angel that heaven sends to help George to find his way by showing him the impact he isn’t even aware that he has had on the world. Audrey Billings, Ian Paul Custer, and Manny Buckley fill out a likable and talented cast, and Shawn J. Goudie adds his exceptional abilities as Foley artist (because what’s a radio play without homemade sound effects?).
It doesn’t matter that you know the story. It wouldn’t even matter if you could recite it by heart, because heart is what It’s a Wonderful Life has always been about. When Dahlquist lovingly declaims his joy in returning to his Bedford Falls after spending time in the hauntingly awful one that might have arisen without George around, once again you find yourself swept away by the rush of it, by the love that he feels for his wife, his children, his friends, and his town. And when that little bell rings and Zuzu tells us that “every time a bell rings it means an angel got his wings,” it feels every bit as “wonderful” as it did the first time we saw the film. Capra would be proud.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago is now available for streaming online through January 2, with tickets and specific times available from American Blues Theater. The show runs approximately 80 minutes with one intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.