Creating a dramatic story to celebrate the spirit of Christmas is far more challenging than it seems. It’s far too easy to try and simply trade on the cloying sweetness of hackneyed sentimentality (see the annual rollout of made-for-TV movies), rather than to construct something that evokes the seasonal themes in a manner that warms the heart and pleases the brain. That’s why most new theater works tend to parody the tropes of the holidays; warm and fuzzy Christmas seems like an old-fashioned notion that belongs to our grandparents. Even putting a twist on a classic can fail. Count me among those who can recite lines from the Frank Capra film “It’s A Wonderful Life” and who finds himself sobbing at the ending every time. When Porchlight did a musical version a couple years back, I expected to love it but instead found it quite disappointing. So I went to see the American Blues Theater’s production of “It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!” with some measure of apprehension. I left marveling at their creation of perfect Christmas theater.
From the intimate and inviting set by Grant Sabin, to the loose camaraderie the ensemble cultivates with the audience “pre-curtain” (we sang a few carols together with the cast “in-character” as radio artists), ABT creates authentic holiday charm. Though it’s a bit unusual at first to watch this story as a radio play, with stationery cast members reading from scripts, you soon adjust to its nuances—the play takes place in their faces and their voices—and to appreciate the careful attention to period elements, like the on-stage Foley sound work of Shawn J. Goudie, and the commercial breaks complete with jingles written for small local businesses like a bank and a dry cleaner that director Marty Higginbotham has included. And then there are the performances: Kevin R. Kelly and Gwendolyn Whiteside deliver George and Mary with all the charm and charisma that these iconic lead roles require, and John Mohrlein steals the show with his amazing ability to channel Mr. Potter and Clarence the Angel, often in one continuous interchange. Ashley Bishop’s dual turn as Violet and Zuzu was also notable. By play’s end, I was choking back as many tears as I do watching the movie. (Is there higher praise than that?)
There’s been some kerfuffle about ABT’s decision to stage a competing version of the play that the ensemble members originated when they were part of American Theatre Company, which they left en masse earlier this year, but seeing this performance makes it very clear why they would do it: they own this Christmas miracle of a show. (Brian Hieggelke)
American Blues Theater‘s “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!” plays in the Studio at Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000 or victorygardens.org, through December 27.