Review: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” and two more holiday shows

James Joseph (Uncle Billy), Ian Paul Custer (Harry), Gwendolyn Whiteside (Mary Bailey – 11/16-12/17) and Dara Cameron (Violet) in a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life now playing at American Blues Theater at Stage

RECOMMENDED

Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Jan. 6, 2018
Tickets: $19-$49
Phone: 773-327-5252

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

There aren’t many holiday shows I want to see more than once or twice, but “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” is one of them. Now in its 16th year, the American Blues Theater production is an evocative blast from the past and a reminder of what was—and still is—truly important.

Based on the iconic 1946 Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was inspired by Philip Van Doren Stern’s story, “The Greatest Gift,” the 85-or-so minute show is presented as a 1944 live radio broadcast. While it breezes through the story hitting all the film’s major plot points and bringing most of the characters to life, that’s just the beginning of its appeal.

Director Gwendolyn Whiteside and her ensemble of seven other multitasking actors create the holiday world of WABT radio in delightful detail. Before the performance even starts, they collect “audiograms” from audience members to be read on the air during commercial breaks. The commercials, which are for real local businesses, are clever jingles written by musical director/announcer/pianist/ukelele player Michael Mahler and sung by him and his wife, Dara Cameron, who plays Violet and other roles. They also lead the audience in pre-show Christmas carols. The “Soldier Spotlight” every evening honors local military personnel. And milk and cookies handed out at the end complete the picture.

Grant Sabin’s scenic design of the studio looks like a welcoming living room replete with colorful holiday decorations, though it also has the requisite old-fashioned microphones and an “On Air/Applause” sign. In one corner is the well-equipped station where Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie produces the sound effects, complemented by Austin Cook’s original score. Christopher J. Neville’s costumes capture the period. Katy Peterson’s lighting adds a warm glow.

Most of the cast members are veterans of the show, starting with John Mohrlein who has never missed a performance since it started. He portrays the wildly different well-meaning angel Clarence and evil Mr. Potter to perfection. Zach Kenney has only been George Bailey for a few years, but he’s completely believable and admirably doesn’t try to imitate or chew up the scenery like James Stewart in the movie. Whiteside is his loving, resourceful Mary Bailey through Dec, 17, after which she’ll be replaced by Camille Robinson. Besides Cameron as Violet, Ian Paul Custer is featured as George’s war-hero younger brother, Harry, and James Joseph as absent-minded Uncle Billy, though virtually everyone plays a variety of roles.

One thing I noticed this time around is that it helps to have seen the movie to understand the story. The streamlined script devotes more attention to showing Clarence George’s past than to what happens when our suicidal hero gets his wish to never have been born, and a few missing details might confuse the uninitiated. In addition, the pacing is very brisk, which I appreciate but some people probably won’t, whether or not they’re fans.

I’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” three or four times and mostly likely will return in another few years. For some reason, I’m most amused by a delicious irony: We’re told that the “broadcast” is going out to homes all over, but of course, it’s not—then, again, maybe it should be.

TWO MORE SHOWS THAT ARE BECOMING ANNUAL HOLIDAY TRADITIONS

Scrooge (GQ, at center) embraces the magic of the Christmas season with the cast of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Q Brothers Christmas Carol, presented in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, Nov. 21–Dec. 31.
Liz Lauren

*“Q Brothers Christmas Carol” has moved to The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare for its fourth outing, and the newly tweaked hip-hop-infused show created and performed by the Q Brothers Collective—real brothers GQ and JQ, Jackson Doran. and Postell Pringle—with DJ Kieran Pereira is as inventive and entertaining as ever. It’s also so densely packed with word games and allusions (like to the whole history of the musical genre), I could see it every year and still not get them all. On top of this, it has genuine heart, and Scrooge’s (GQ) transformation is truly touching.

While the story sticks to Dickens’ basics, the specifics have morphed completely. Marley (JQ), for example, hated reggae in life, so his ghost is doomed to a Bob Marley-like eternity (the song is hilarious), suitable punishment given that he outsourced his and Scrooge’s wig business to Jamaica. Except for GQ, the actors play multiple roles, and the delights range from JQ as hypochondriac Lil’ Tim doing a lively dance with his crutch to Pringle as both Bob Cratchit and his daughter Martha in a scene together. Besides cabaret seating, the new venue allows enhanced effects, especially in Jesse Klug’s lighting. On Navy Pier through Dec. 31. For tickets ($30-$52), call 312-595-5600.

*The Joffrey Ballet is back at the Auditorium Theatre for the second holiday season with its “must see” new version of “The Nutcracker” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Transplanting the tale to Chicago on Christmas Eve 1892, five months before the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was an inspired idea, and the well-worked-out reconception is long on female empowerment. Marie (Clara in other versions) saves the Nutcracker from the Rat King in her dream, and her Mother is the immigrant sculptress who fashions the statue of “The Republic” that presides over the fair (even though the real sculptor was Daniel Chester French). I found the first-act setup a bit long this time around, but the second act fantasy of what the fair’s pavilions will be like explodes with splendid dancing and special effects, including awesome projections. My personal favorite: the Arabian Dancers’ sultry routine, stunningly performed on opening night by Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels. “The Nutcracker” continues at 50 E. Congress Pkwy through Dec. 30. For tickets ($35-$165), call 312-386-8905.