“It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!”

reviewed by Carol Moore

Highly Recommended ****

 Take your family on a nostalgic trip into the past with American Blues Theater’s 16th annual production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” in their new venue, Stage 773.  You ‘ll join a ‘live radio’ audience with a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes and watch a talented cast bring Bedford Park to life, commercials and all!  The stage might be a little larger; the décor a little more festive; but it’s still the show Chicagoans have grown to love.  It is so much fun to listen to the beloved story unfold; “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago” gets 4 Holiday Spotlights!

While the audience is being seated, Musical Director/Piano Player/ Announcer, Michael Mahler, plays and sings holiday tunes.  Meanwhile, members of the cast circulate through the audience offering people the chance to write an ‘audiogram’ to be read on the air.

About ten minutes before show time, Mahler begins to prep the audience for the broadcast.  He began by saying that before Frank Capra ever made his movie, George Bailey’s story was a hit on radio.  After explaining the ON AIR/APPLAUSE sign to the audience, Mahler asked where people were from.  I heard people mention New York City, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Francisco, as well as Kentucky, Arizona, Maine and more.

A little closer to show time, Mahler encouraged everyone to join in singing holiday songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” while on the screen, a handy little ball bounces over the words.  He even does a little ‘name the tune’ contest, playing the intro to carols on different instruments.

Since the country was still at war in 1943, the “Soldier Spotlight” honors a serviceman or servicewoman.  At the performance I attended, they chose a father and daughter who had served with distinction in two different eras.

Finally, after a five second count-down, the ON AIR sign lit up, the cast moved to the microphones and the broadcast began.

By slightly changing their voices/inflections/accents, everyone in the cast plays at least two parts.  Off to the side, Foley (Shawn J. Goudie) provides the sound effects.  The actors and their major parts: Zach Kenney is George Bailey; the versatile John Mohrlein plays both Clarence and Mr. Potter, as well as a host of minor characters including Mr. Gower.

When she smiles, Gwendolyn Whiteside is Mary Bailey; when she purses her lips, she’s Mrs. Bailey, George’s mother.  Ian Pau Custer plays Harry Bailey and Ernie the cab driver, James Joseph plays Uncle Billy and Bert, the cop.  Dara Cameron plays Violet Bick, Janey and ZuZu, as well as singing the jingles in the commercial breaks.

An additional treat, the cast members serve milk and cookies after the show.

My congratulations to Michael Mahler and his wife Dara Cameron who are expecting their first baby in March.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” runs through January 6th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago.  Valet parking is available for most performances.  Running time is 90 minutes, no intermission.

Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 4:30 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2:30 pm.  There are additional performances November 29th at 2:30 pm; December 20th at 2:30 pm; January 2nd at 4:30 and 7:30 pm.  No performances on December 13th at 7:30 pm; December 25th (Christmas Day); or January 6th at 7:30 pm.  Plan on arriving 10 minutes early for prizes and audiograms.  Children 12 and under receive keepsakes on December 16th (Hanukkah) and December 24th (Santa visits).  Tickets range from $19-$49.  FYI (773) 327-5252 or www.americanbluestheater.com.