When it comes to popular, holiday themed traditions, viewing the Jimmy Stewart cinematic treasure, It’s a Wonderful Life, readily comes to mind. Here in Chicago, since 2002, Frank Capra’s celebratory, time-honored classic has been staged live at the Greenhouse Theater. Director Gwendolyn Whiteside transports her cast and the audience back to a 1944 radio broadcast set, WABT Studio, on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. With lovely, period accurate costuming designed by Christopher J. Neville, and an impressively detailed set crafted by Grant Sabin, over 35,000 patrons have enjoyed this robust interpretation of the holiday classic over the years. Heavy on the saccharine, It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! was as delicious as egg nog and freshly made cookies, which the cast also distributes to the audience at the show’s conclusion.
From the moment you walk into the theater, each audience member was immediately met by the cast singing robust Christmas carols while pianist and musical director, Michael Mahler, tickled the ivories accordingly. A charming Barbershop Quartet crooned “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” as audience members found their respective seats. Throughout the show, real world soldiers were saluted and engagements and anniversaries were also recognized. Yes, a couple was actually engaged the afternoon I attended. The rich and deeply personal connections to this story abound. Believe me, such personal milestones are more than welcomed during this show. Audience members clapped along and participated in trivia games before the actual production ensued. I actually won a t-shirt correctly answering a trivia question. Such a sense of levity is the novelty that has kept this spectacle playing on successfully throughout the years.
When the official radio broadcast began, we entered the world of George Bailey, played by the handsome Brandon Dahlquist, a Bedford Falls banker who felt underwhelmed by his pedestrian life. The remarkable cast of eight actors gave voice to the remaining townsfolk, including dapper James Joseph as Uncle Billy in his 7th year in the part, the always delightful Camille Robinson as Mary Bailey and John Mohrlein returning for his 15th season as Clarence and Mr. Potter. The additional cast’s vocal talents ranged from the innocence of a small child provided by Dara Cameron and Ian Paul Custer to the seasoned warbles of the town drunk at the local watering hole. All without missing a beat. Adding an additional layer to the proceedings, the remarkable Foley talents of Shawn J. Goudie. There were audience members reduced to tears by the show’s conclusion. While I wasn’t moved quite that much by the material, it is hard to resist the undeniable charm of this affable group’s efforts.
While harkening back to the “Golden Age of Radio” it is impossible to forget to mention the original commercial jingles produced here highlighting local Windy City neighborhood businesses including CH Vodka Distillery & Cocktail Bar and Blue Cross Blue Shield. While the original score created by Austin Cook remained intact, current musical director Michael Mahler added his own unique and charismatic flair to the proceedings. American Blues Theater certainly is lucky to have this star on its hands. This multi-generational treat might be a little heavy with sentimental flair, however when I attended, the audience included multiple generations of the same family who each appeared to enjoy themselves thoroughly. It is refreshing to know the holiday theatrical landscape this season is blessed by so many top notch and varied selections. Check out It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! 15th Anniversary while you can. You will be all the merrier for the experience.
American Blues Theater It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! 15th Anniversary is now playing through December 31, 2016