Highly Recommended The holiday season always includes some classics, in both late night TV movies and as we have seen of late on our stages ( “Miracle on 34th Street”/several versions and of course “A Christmas Carol”). There are also several versions of Frank Capra’s famed movie “It’s A Wonderful Life”. American Blues Theater has been doing this for many years and so it has become a sort of Holiday Tradition for them. It is done as a radio broadcast in 1944, a time when radio was king and families sat by the tubed box listening to each and every word that came out of it. American Blues Theater, as it has done over the years, takes us back to that time in their quaint radio station WABT located on Lincoln Avenue atop the Victory Gardens’ Biograph Theatre, in what is called the Richard Christianson Theater, a very intimate space. From the very second the audience enters this space, they are transported back to that special time. The actors are preparing to go “on-air” and adjusting their costumes; the Foley Man ( sound effects for those who are unfamiliar with the term) is checking his equipment, the piano player ( Austin Cook) is warming up some of the performers with Christmas tunes and some are reading over their scripts. In radio, many of the performers did a multitude of roles, and even though this is live, this is no different. With the exception of Kevin R. Kelly, who plays George Bailey ( and might I say, better than James Stewart did in the movie with perfect emotion and development of his character) they all handles many roles.
During the warm ups, audience members are asked to fill out holiday messages to be read during commercial breaks. This is a three act performance in radio time, but a mere 90 minutes in actual time. Radio may have been pre-television, but it was not pre-commercial, so there are commercials at each break, mostly of nearby businesses and handled by Announcer Ed Kross, who as always is dynamite and the lovely Ashley Bishop, who takes on many roles and has a great singing voice. Oh yes, before the actual “airing” of the radio play, they lead some holiday songs so that the audience gets into the mood as well.
For those of you who do not know the story where have you been?), “Its A Wonderful Life” based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” written by Philip Van Doren Stern”, the story is about a man who at the very onset of the play is about to take his own life. The head angel brings Clarence ( one of the many characters handled with great ability by John Mohrlein) in order to earn his wings is going to be sent to Earth to save him. To do this, he is allowed to review his past and watch him grow up. George Bailey is part of a warm family living in a small town. George’s father and uncle run a building and loan ( later to become savings and loans) in opposition to the bank owned and controlled by Mr. Potter ( Mohrlein takes this role to a very special level, almost Barrymore-like) who wants to control the entire town. We watch George save his brother’s life, take over the business when his dad dies, sacrificing his dreams , and try to help all the residents of his community, no matter the price he paid to do so. He also as a youngster, working in a pharmacy noticed an error in a prescription and saved the Pharmacist from killing someone and going to prison. The story is very heartwarming and lovely and we get to see the reality and meaning from the life of one person.
We get to see all this clearly, but George himself, has no idea of how each person’s life, touches another and so on and so on. When Clarence tries to save him, he allows George to see his life and how it would effect others,if he had never been born. After George goes through a period of being an unknown, a non-person, and he sees the townspeople come to his rescue, he realizes that he has in fact had a “wonderful life” and Clarence, his angel, gets his wings! Emotions tend to rise during this 90 minutes ( no intermission) with each member of the audience guaranteed to feel a tear fall from their eye as we see just how important each individual is to those who come into our lives.This is a marvelous production directed once again by Marty Higginbottom with a glorious cast of actors and a great tech crew. Doing a live radio broadcast is not as simple as one might think. The actors must seem as if they really are actors playing roles and they are somewhat limited in the space which they work within. Higginbottom has made this appear to really be happening live ( well, I guess it is) and that we are in fact in a radio station studio rather than a comfortable theater on Lincoln Avenue.
The set by Grant Sabin has comfortable furniture ( the actors who are not at the mike, relax until they are “up”) a piano, a sound booth and of course the Foley station ( Wonderful work by Shawn J. Goudie). Stage left we have two signs- “On Air” and “Applause” and we are instructed by Kross to please obey these. Center stage are radio microphones that the actors use and the number of characters they play are many- it is very difficult to convey a character such as a child or an old woman when we the audience, can see the young person handling the role, but this cast does it to perfection. In Addition to the brilliant work of Kelly, Bishop ,Kross and Mohrlein, we have Andrew carter, James Joseph, and the adorable and very agile Gwendolyn Whiteside ( who plays George’s mother as well as his wife).
The costumes by Samantha Jones, lighting by Katy Peterson, projections by Bobby Richards, Sound by Marty Higginbottom ( another multi-talented person) and props by Sarah E. Ross complete the brilliant production that will be presented at The Biograph ( Victory Gardens Theater) located at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue through December 31st. The performance schedule is as follows:
Wednesdays ( 12/22 and 12/29 only) at 8 p.m.,Thursdays at 8 p.m.,Fridays at 8 p.m. ( except 12/24 at 3 p.m. and 12/31 5 p.m.),Saturdays 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. ( no show on Christmas Day) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ( and a special performance on 12/26 at 6 p.m.)
Tickets range from $32-40 and can be purchased at the theater box office, by phone at 773-871-3000 or online at www.victorygardens.org