American Blues Theatre’s annual old-time radio-style staging of the classic movie script “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been the hottest holiday show in town for nearly two decades. The experience on Saturday night was like diving into your favorite cup of hot chocolate and then coming back out with a peppermint stick.
Such was the mutual love in the room.
One of the most beloved features of this show are the audiograms from the studio audience: People can send small telegram-style sounds that the actors then read from the stage. For years, people have been writing about their love for family or closeness to friends: On Saturday, one person appeared to be telling their partner about a new pregnancy.
But what was different this year was how many people took the opportunity to thank American Blues and say “well done” to this company. opening of a new small theater to an Equity theater company that somehow built its first permanent home at 5627 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood, even as many other theaters struggled to survive. With each congratulatory audiogram, the emotion on these players’ faces became more palpable. Performers like Michael Mahler (who is also the musical director), Dara Cameron, Ian Paul Custer, and Brandon Dahlquist (who plays George Bailey’s famous Jimmy Stewart) have been doing this show for years, and they’ve grown older with the text each holiday season. What I know; What I learned Saturday night was just how much of that audience comes back year after year, even though the show is spread all over the city, from North Center to Lakeview to Lincoln Park to Wicker Park — as does most of the creative team. The set designer remains the same, including Grant Sabin.
This is the sixth venue (seven if you include the Zoom incarnation of the show). But people go to theaters for the shows, not the buildings. They are willing to travel when they find something they love. This also applies to visitors. The cast requests the audience’s hometowns, and there were people there from all over the country.
The narrative and emotional power of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” needs no further validation for me (I’ve reviewed this 90-minute show most years since 2004). It’s the same with what it means to people during the holiday season. Suffice it to say that this is a short but truly lively and delightful adaptation. This piece now sits beautifully in American Blues’ new home, which features a large stage and extremely comfortable seating, and this happy company is filled with decorative, edible, and seasonal items reminiscent of holidays past, present, and hopefully into the future. future.
One last note. As I watched artistic director Wendy Whiteside’s production, I thought Saturday of Chicago actor John Mohrlein, who played the angel Clarence on this series for more than a decade and died in 2021 at the age of 74. Chicago Reader used the appropriate title “The wonderful life of John Mohrlein” and many of the actors interviewed took their cues from what they enjoy doing most.
You can definitely guess what this is. John would like the “going home” part to be added.
Get the latest news and reviews from America’s most popular theater city delivered weekly to your inbox.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” (3.5 stars)
When: until December 31
Where: American Blues Theatre, 5627 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes (plus live pre-show)
Tickets: $29.50-$69.50 at 773-654-3103 and americanbluestheater.com