American Blues Theater continue a twenty-two-year tradition by presenting “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!,” running through December 31 in their newly renovated theater in West Ridge. Based on Frank Capra’s 1946 story of a small-town businessman who loses and recovers his faith in God, life and community, ABT’s version is directed by Gwendolyn Whiteside and staged like a live radio broadcast from the 1940s, complete with men in baggy suits and women wearing their hair in pinned-back curls, the ensemble speaking every line into a cluster of microphones centerstage while an “On Air/Applause” sign flashes overhead.
The pre-show performance is almost as fun as the main event, with the cast singing and playing instruments, inviting the audience to “name that tune” and performing pop songs modified for the season, like a Chanukah-version of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”—“We’re counting down to eight, eight, eight, eight, ay-eight, It’s Chan-u-kah, Chan-u-kah!”
Six cast members—Audrey Billings, Manny Buckley, Dara Cameron, Ian Paul Custer, Joe Dempsey and Michael Mahler—swap roles at breakneck speed. One second, they’re playing agitated townsfolk, the next, high-pitched children or soft-spoken angels, sometimes in the same breath. The only static roles are Brandon Dahlquist, who plays protagonist George Bailey and looks and sounds like a 1930s Charles Atlas model, and J.G. Smith, an honest-to-goodness Foley artist behind a counter lined with a miniature door, old-time radio and all sorts of other sound effects bric-a-brac.
Much like George Bailey himself, I threw myself into this show like plunging into icy water to get it over with—oh boy, another “It’s a Wonderful Life, (sigh).” As a newbie to ABT’s long-running version, I was pleasantly surprised at the play-within-a-play format. The vintage set by scenic designer Grant Sabin immerses you in the zeitgeist. Lighting design by Katy Peterson Viccellio and sound effects by Smith ease the imagination into filling in the scenery of the sleepy town of Bedford Falls. This was not the straightforward “It’s A Wonderful Life” that I was expecting—and that’s a good thing!
There’s no skimping when it comes to the acting. Hearing Manny Buckley switch from Joseph, the magnanimous angel to sniveling Uncle Billy, or Dara Cameron go from vivacious Violet to a squeaky young girl, never gets old. After becoming disillusioned with life and following his rejuvenating epiphany, Dahlquist as Bailey has real tears in his eyes as he repeats the iconic lines, “I want to live again!”
If you’re a Grinch like me and cringe upon hearing the same holiday tunes year after year, then you’ll appreciate this show that breathes new life into an old classic. Looking for gift ideas this holiday season? Don’t shoot for the moon! Instead, consider treating friends and family (and yourself) with tickets to American Blues Theater’s “It’s a Wonderful Life Live in Chicago!” (No cosmic lasso required.)
American Blues Theater presents “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” running through December 31 at 5627 North Lincoln. Tickets are $25-$65 at americanbluestheater.com.