Review: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE IN CHICAGO! at American Blues Theater

Review: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE IN CHICAGO! at American Blues Theater

James Joseph, Ian Paul Custer, Gwendolyn Whiteside, Zach Kenney, Dara Cameron. Photo by Michael Brosilow

By Bec Willett

I hadn’t heard of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE until I moved to the States. It seemed like one of those American rituals that I would just never be able to get the hang of – like crab rangoon, or pedestrians walking really close behind you before taking over, or hugging people you’ve only just met. For me, the holidays evoked memories of juicy mangoes, and cold ham and presents under sparse plastic trees. The holidays meant summer, where it’s so humid that the beads of sweat moisten your lips, lending a scant saltiness to your sips of vibrant Christmas punch concocted by an aunt or grandma. My understanding of holiday tradition just seemed too far removed from this snowy world of romantic sentimentalism and vintage movies. It’s no surprise then that although American Blues Theater’s radio-play version of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has been running for 16 years, that only just now have I taken the time to see it – and I’m kicking myself for not going earlier.

In this tightly-constructed 90 minute production, we are enrolled as the studio audience in live performances of the radio play during the 1940s, complete with spot-on costuming and scenic design from Grant Sabin and Christopher J. Neville, and live foley from Shawn J. Goudie. Many of the same actors have performed in the annual production throughout the years, but these performers are anything but tired. In fact, there is a feeling that this now has become a ritual of celebration for them – to remind themselves why they do what they do, and to take a moment to celebrate it. This ensemble more than deserves this joy, as the precision with which they step in and out of dozens of characters is a testament to the depth and breadth of their vocal technique. Zach Kenney’s George Bailey is a particular standout, delivering a heartfelt performance that hits all the nostalgia of Jimmy Stewart while still managing to find the truth of the character in himself. Husband and wife musical duo Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron perform snappy vintage jingles supporting local business and the USO making it clear that this isn’t just a tradition of performance, but one of generosity and community. While I wish this year’s ensemble had greater diversity, their performances are flawless.

It was only a year or two ago that I finally sat down to watch the film on a bleak, wintery afternoon. As Clarence utters those memorable words “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” I finally understood what all the fuss was about as tears ran down my cheeks. This wasn’t sentimentalism – well not all of it – but rather an annual sticky-note to remind us to reflect on who we are, how we affect others, and to celebrate what we have.

Just as with my first experience watching the film, the story of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and the joy and connection these artists brought reminded me again that traditions are important. Clearly, this is one American Blues Theater have made their own, and I think I just might join them.

American Blues Theater’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE IN CHICAGO! runs through January 6th at Stage 773. More info at americanbluestheater.com.

About author

Bec Willett

Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.

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