devouring theatre, film, and food
After a long and trying day, I entered Victory Gardens a bit of Scrooge on Saturday night. So when Christmas-y sweater-wearing performers, their smiles stretching from rosy cheek to rosy cheek, began a holiday sing-along preshow—a few rounds of “Jingle Bells” and “The 12 Days of Christmas”—I was dismayed at the thought of participating. But after American Blues Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life! Live at the Biograph!, my initial curmudgeonly inertia dissipated as I was slowly drawn back to a radio studio in the 1940’s, where a classic story of family and community was being staged.
It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 1946 film, has delighted audiences for decades. The story of depressed George Bailey of Bedford Falls and the wingless angel Clarence who is sent to save him was not a blockbuster in its own time. But the expiration of its copyright has made it an enduring holiday television classic, and the subject of many adaptations, including this staged radio play. For the past decade, Chicago has enjoyed American Blues Theatre Company’s version, and after having my mood completely transformed by this group—one which is committed to telling “working people” stories—I hope they return every Christmas season to present George Bailey’s struggle to keep his father’s ailing loan company above water, all the while keeping himself above literal water when he realizes he’s worth more dead than alive.
Scripts in hand, the talented ensemble of American Blues takes on the iconic film characters, as they approach three old-timey microphones downstage (old-timey is a technical term). Around them are the trappings of a radio studio decorated with Christmas wreaths, and “On Air” and “Applause” signs illuminate appropriately throughout the night. Kevin R. Kelly’s earnest George Bailey is a strong anchor to the show’s story, rivaling James Stewart’s original performance, and Gwendolyn Whiteside stirs up emotion and hope as Mary Bailey, the woman who supports both her husband and the town. Many of the cast members don multiple roles, most notably John Mohrlein who switches with ease between the naive angel Clarence and the greedy villain Mr. Porter. The cast is rounded out with Dara Cameron as Violet, James Joseph as Uncle Billy, Ian Paul Custer as Harry, and Michael Mahler as both the radio announcer and piano accompanist.
Shawn J Goudie is a master at work as the Foley artist, the person responsible for creating sound effects. Goudie moves with such dexterity that he might go unnoticed. Try to take a peek at him as he simulates doors slamming with a suitcase or when he utilizes a large paper wheel to create the wintry setting of Capra’s tale.
With original direction from Marty Higginbotham,It’s a Wonderful Life! Live at the Biograph! is a tight, well-paced 90 minutes, broken only by musical messages from the show’s sponsors— positively delightful rhyming ditties sung by the cast for Commonwealth Edison and Lettuce Entertain You restaurants—and “audio grams,” which are notes from audience members written before the show and read throughout the performance. These notes make the night interactive and, for this shy critic, a bit shame-inducing: I’m still chastising my friends for using my real name and wishing me luck with my ”online dating profiles,” which became “dance cards” in the 1940’s radio setting.
It’s a Wonderful Life! Live at the Biograph!, would note that the wintry months are a time for reflection; stories with a strong moral are an important part of that. When George Bailey sacrifices his personal dreams for the needs of his community, the result may not be the life he expected, but an angelic visitor shows him how valuable his life really is. The lesson is that a “wonderful life” might not be one filled with exotic adventures, but one that is filled with the love which is derived from being in service to your community.
The message of putting individual dreams on hold for the sake of the greater good was just the moral that Americans needed during WWII. It turns out that this message—and the sincerity in which it is delivered—is good medicine for the modern cynic as well. It’s a Wonderful Life! Live at the Biograph! is a delightful holiday reminder of a time period that kept singing a tune even in the face of extreme tragedy. Perhaps the thing that is most different about the past is not attire or technology (the cast jokes that if any audience members have telephones in their pockets, they should be taken off the receiver), but the sincerity and optimism which were present then. Maybe that’s what was so jarring when I first walked into the theater: I was transported back to a time in which my general cynicism was no longer fashionable. And maybe that’s why I found myself even smiling to songs being sung about ComEd.