With the “Holiday Season” and the tradition that comes with it, one of my very favorite stories,”It’s A Wonderful Life”, as a live radio show also comes back- this is the 90 minute “live” radio broadcast that is based on the Frank Capra film of te same name which was based on the book,” The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, that depict a man;s life and the importance of who he is over what he has. The movie of course is one of our classic films and while there have been many stage versions, some with music, some more into the actual story, I find the radio broadcast a wonderful experience for young and old.
While there are several productions of this story, I find myself brought back to the American Blues Theater Company’s version, which they do in the smaller studio ( Richard Christiansen Theater) at The Biograph,Victory Gardens on Lincoln Avenue.Under the direction of Marty Higginbotham, we the audience are brought into the radio studio (Grant Sabin’s set is perfect) to witness a live broadcast to Chicago on AM Radio. The time is the 1940’s, a time when radio was king in reaching large audiences and storytelling was one of America’s greatest diversions. When we enter the theater, actors come by and speak to us,ask us to fill out little memo-grams with messages that we want to send out to those at home and in general prepare for their performance.
American Blues has been doing this for several years and with many returning cast members, they truly have the right touch in all areas of making this a true “experience” for an audience.For those who don’t know the story, it is about George Bailey and his family. George ( played once again by Kevin R. Kelly, who truly has this character down pat) is a young man who has aspirations to leave Bedford Falls, a small rural town where his father and uncle started a building and loan so that the townspeople could have their own homes, but one thing after another leads to his never reaching his goals.
He marries his first love, ends up taking over the business and when the business gets into trouble, feels the need to escape it all, wondering if his family is better off with him dead than alive. This is where Clarence ( a divine performance by John Mohrlein, who also does a great Mr. Potter, the greedy old man who owns and controls most of the town) a would be angel gets involved. In fact, Clarence comes in early and then we go through flashbacks of how George got into this predicament. If Clarence can save George, he will get his wings. This is 90 delightful minutes with seven wonderful performers and a Foley Man ( Shawn J. Goudie). The Foley is the sound man that made radio seem very real- doors closing, bells ringing, babies crying and all the things you hear in a world of entertainment where your ears create the magic of your mind ( also known as radio).
James Joseph is another returning actor as Uncle Billy and the delicious Gwendolyn Whiteside returns in the dual roles of Mrs. Bailey, George’s mother and Mrs. Bailey (George’s wife, Mary). Ms. Whiteside handles both of these roles with great style. New members of the cast, Zachary Kenney as George’s brother Harry, and Husband/wife team Dara Cameron( who takes on Violet and other roles) and Michael Mahler ( announcer/pianist and others) who also lead us through a holiday sing along as part of the warm-ups and handles the commercial breaks. They are a great addition to this marvelous cast.
The authenticity of the costumes(Samantha C. Jones) makes us feel that we are in the 1940’s and the lighting( Katy Peterson Viccellio) and sound ( Marty Higginbotham) are the icing on the cake along with Sarah E. Ross and her props and the projections by Bobby Richards truly make the sing-along much more manageable. What the story does is make you laugh and no matter how many times you see it, there is a point, near the end, when a tear will escape from your eye. If you don’t feel it, you need to think hard about your own life, because what we find in this story is that the grass is not always greener on the other side and possessions and wealth cannot compete with friends and family and of course love of and from people is much better than owning “stuff”. As you leave the theater, milk and cookies are served by the cast, which is a great way to get you into the spirit of your own wonderful life!
“It’s A Wonderful Life” will continue at The Biograph/Victory Gardens located at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue through December 31st with performances as follows:
Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.,Saturdays at 5 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. for holiday changes , check out www.americanbluestheater.com
Tickets range from $25 and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 773-971-3000 or online at www.americanbluestheater.org