Sunday, November 26, 2017

REVIEW: Family Friendly It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! at American Blues Theater Through 1/6/18

American Blues Theater Presents
16th Annual Production of
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
From Frank Capra’s film
Directed by Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside

Through January 6, 2018 

Photo credit for all: Michael Brosilow

**Holiday Events: Children 12 & under receive keepsakes on December 16 (Hanukkah) and December 24 (Santa visits)**

Guest Post by Lori Morrison-Contreras

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite Christmas movies. It was one of my Grandma’s too and I have so many wonderful memories of watching it with her that it now has much deeper meaning for me. 

The live radio version of It’s a Wonderful Life by American Blues Theater is a wonderful old fashioned treat to kick off the holiday season! The stage was gorgeously set, in deep red with lots of light and many, fully decorated Christmas trees. As you walk in, the actors are singing your favorite classic holiday songs.  It is definitely the full 40’s small town Beford Falls experience with the actors greeting everyone as they walk in and passing out cookies and milk as you leave. They even kept the commercials and all references within the theme of old time 40’s language and charm.

As it is a radio play, there is no physical action on stage. Yet, you are able to see each actor change the tone and expression of their voice to truly become so many different characters that it keeps audience members of all ages engaged and entertained. My son and I loved being able to see the sound booth and how ordinary items like glasses and crinkled paper are used to do all the sound effects and add so much to the telling of the story.

In these times of huge special effects, it is a welcome change to go back to a more minimalist, basic approach with this classic. Some of my favorite, more visual scenes (like falling into the pool during the dance contest) are left out of the radio telling, but all the classic elements of George Bailey’s life are there and at the end you will still have a tear in your eye as Clarence earns his wings and George realized that he truly is the richest man in town.

About the Show:

American Blues Theater continues its 2017-2018 Season with its 16th Annual Production of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! from Frank Capra’s film and directed by Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside with musical direction by Ensemble Member Michael Mahler. It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! runs through January 6, 2018 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago.

Wednesdays:  7:30pm Thursdays:  7:30pm Fridays:  7:30pm Saturdays:  4:30pm & 7:30pm Sundays:  2:30pm Additional performances on November 29 at 2:30pm; December 20 at 2:30pm; and January 2 at 4:30pm and 7:30pm No performances on December 13 at 7:30pm; December 25 (Christmas Day); or January 6 at 7:30pm

Arrive 10 min early for prizes and audiograms 

Ticket prices: $19 - $49 Box Office: Buy online at or by calling 773.327.5252.

For 16 years, the American Blues Ensemble has treated Chicago audiences to a live 1940s radio broadcast of holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. The incredible cast recreates the entire town of Bedford Falls with Foley sound effects, an original score and holiday carols. The Bedford Falls “residents” extend their hospitality after every performance treating audiences to milk and cookies served by the cast.

“This story is a staple of our mission: American Blues Theater explores the American identity through the plays it produces and communities it serves,” notes Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside. “This story reminds us of the fragility of life. Frank Capra’s line – “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – resonates throughout the year. During the holidays, it becomes a poignant reminder as we gather with our loved ones.”

The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! includes Blues artists Dara Cameron (Violet), Ian Paul Custer (Harry), Shawn Goudie (Foley), James Joseph (Uncle Billy), Zach Kenney (George Bailey), Michael Mahler (Announcer), John Mohrlein (Clarence/Mr. Potter), Camille Robinson (Mary Bailey – 12/20-1/6) and Gwendolyn Whiteside (Mary Bailey – 11/16-12/17).  The creative team includes Austin Cook (score composer), Grant Sabin (scenic), Christopher J. Neville (costumes), Katy Peterson (lighting), Elyse Dolan (properties) and Paul Deziel (projection design). The stage manager is Kathryn Lochert.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! has received Joseph Jefferson Award nominations for Best Midsize Production and Best Ensemble. 

About the Artists
GWENDOLYN WHITESIDE (Director, Mary Bailey Nov. 16 – Dec. 17) is a proud Ensemble member of American Blues Theater and has served as Producing Artistic Director since 2010. Under her leadership, American Blues has nearly doubled the size of its Ensemble, added 28 Artistic Affiliates, and diversified its base of artists. She created the nationally-recognized annual Blue Ink Playwriting Award, Blueprint Development for new work, implemented community service into the company’s mission, and adapted the arts education program The Lincoln Project for Chicago Public Schools which serves over 1,500 students annually. She led American Blues through its 2009 rebirth and built the operational budget from zero to $825,000 in six (6) years. Whiteside served numerous panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and sat on the national Board of Directors for Network of Ensemble Theaters. She’s a graduate of Northwestern University (cum laude), The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA), and a Kellogg Executive Scholar in Nonprofit management (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University). She was nominated for “Chicagoan of the Year” in Chicago Magazine and twice listed in Newcity’s annual Players list. In six years, six American Blues’ productions won or were nominated for best production by the Joseph Jefferson Award committee. She’s received 11 Joseph Jefferson Awards, Citations, and nominations as an actress and Producing Artistic Director. Her favorite performances include Jeff Award for Solo Performance (Grounded), Jeff Award nomination for Solo Performance (the K of D), Mary’s Wedding (Top 5 performances in Indianapolis), Collected Stories (Best Actress Broadway World Chicago Award), and 6 years as “Mary Bailey” (It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!). She’s the recipient of two (2) After Dark Awards and numerous Broadway World Chicago Awards and nominations.

DARA CAMERON (Violet) is a proud Ensemble member of American Blues Theater. She so happy to be back with her American Blues family for her fifth It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago. Other favorite credits include Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors (American Blues Theater); Jovie in Elf, October Sky, Sister Act, City of Angels, Hero, The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Fiddler on the Roof, and Little Women (Marriott Theatre); Old Jews Telling Jokes (Off-Broadway and at the Royal George); Wednesday in The Addams Family (Mercury Theatre); Sunset Boulevard, Seussical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (Drury Lane). She is a proud member of Actors’ Equity and a graduate of Northwestern University. As always, she’s delighted to share the stage with her husband, Michael Mahler, and even more delighted that this year they get to share their favorite holiday tradition with their son-to-be, due to arrive in March. 

IAN PAUL CUSTER (Harry) is a proud ensemble member of American Blues Theater.  Recent American Blues credits: The Columnist (David Halberstam, Jeff Nomination for Best Production – Midsize), It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! (Jeff Nomination for Best Ensemble and Best Production – Midsize), Little Shop of Horrors (Orin Skrivello, Jeff Nomination for Best Production of a Musical – Midsize), and Yankee Tavern.  Recent Chicago theatrical credits: Bad Jews (Theatre Wit, North Shore Center, Royal George), 33 Variations (TimeLine Theatre, Jeff Award for Best Production – Midsize), Annie Bosh is Missing (Steppenwolf Theatre), High Holidays (Goodman Theatre), To Master the Art (Broadway Playhouse/TimeLine Theatre), Strangers, Babies (Steep Theatre), and Fiddler on the Roof (Paramount Theatre).  Regional theatrical credits: Hero: The Musical (Asolo Rep Theatre), Cymbeline (Notre Dame Shakespeare), Romeo and Juliet (Cardinal Stage), Peter Pan (360 Entertainment - London, England).  Television credits: APB, Empire, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD.  Love to Shannon, my friends, and my family for all the support.  

SHAWN J. GOUDIE (Foley) is a proud Artistic Affiliate of American Blues Theater. He excited to be returning for his 9th season of It's A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago. It is a joy for him to share the magic of old time radio with so many wonderful folks year after year. He would like to thank his amazing wife, their endlessly curious children and his loving parents.

ZACH KENNEY (George Bailey) is a proud Artistic Affiliate of American Blues Theater. He is thrilled to return as “George”, and to return to It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago for a third time. Previous work with American Blues also includes Waiting for Lefty, directed by Kimberly Senior. Chicago credits include: Hit the Wall (The Inconvenience); Hair (American Theater Company); The March (u/s, Steppenwolf Theatre); Chicago Boys (Goodman Theatre New Stages); The Gospel According to James (Victory Gardens Theater); and The Farnsworth Invention and Not Enough Air (TimeLine Theatre). Regional: The Great Gatsby, Red, Mary’s Wedding (opposite Gwendolyn Whiteside), and Who Am I This Time? (Indiana Rep); A Little Night Music (u/s) and 1776 (A.C.T.); 1776 (Asolo Rep); and An Immaculate Misconception (Eureka Theatre Co.). Television/film: Chicago Fire, LifeSteps…, and Schizo Cool. A San Francisco native, Zach trained at A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory (originating the title role in Horton Foote's The Actor in 2002) before attending The Theatre School at DePaul University. Zach resides in Los Angeles and thanks Alli, GTG, and this exceptional company.

JAMES JOSEPH (Uncle Billy) is a proud Artistic Affiliate of American Blues Theater. He returns for his eighth season of It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!  Also at American Blues he appeared in Tobacco Road, performed voiceovers for Hank Williams: Lost Highway and American Myth, and has written for the Ripped festival.  He has performed on Chicago stages for twenty years, including at Steppenwolf Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, and TimeLine Theatre.  He is your audio guide for the permanent Chicago Authored exhibition at the Chicago History Museum, and was nominated for a Non-Equity Jeff Award (Supporting Actor) for his role in Faith Healer with UMA Productions.  

MICHAEL MAHLER (Announcer/Pianist) is a proud Ensemble member of American Blues Theater. He happily returns for a seventh season in Bedford Falls. American Blues credits include Little Shop of Horrors, Side Man, and Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Other Chicagoland credits include: Honeymoon in Vegas, City of Angels, and The 25th Annual… Spelling Bee (Marriott Theatre); The March (Steppenwolf Theatre); Working (Broadway in Chicago); and The Fox on the Fairway, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Jeff nomination), and The Producers (Theatre at the Center). Michael is the Jeff award-winning composer/lyricist of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, October Sky, The Man who Murdered Sherlock Holmes, Wonderland: Alice's Rock & Roll Adventure, and Hero. He also contributed additional lyrics to the new Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Up next, Michael will music direct and appear in Blues’ production of Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. He is proud to share the stage with his wife, Dara Cameron, who is full of the joy of the season (and also a baby).

JOHN MOHRLEIN (Clarence/Mr. Potter) is a proud Ensemble member of American Blues Theater. 16 years as “Clarence/Mr. Potter”, and he loves getting to revisit and reinvent these characters year after year.  At American Blues, he’s appeared in Half of Plenty, It’s a Wonderful Life, A View from the Bridge, Strictly Dishonorable, American Dead, The Hairy Ape, A Lie of the Mind, Endgame, American Buffalo, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Threepenny Opera, A Stone Carver (Jeff nomination for Best Actor, After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance), and directed Catch-22. Other credits: The Glass House at the Art Institute of Chicago; nine productions at Goodman Theatre; and Cripple of Inishmaan, Heart of a Dog, and Murder of Cardinal Tosca at Northlight Theatre. His extensive television and film work includes Golden Boy, Good Night Sweet Wife, Dillinger, Killing Floor, Early Edition, Crime Story (recurring role), Untouchables, Devil’s Dominoes, Stranger Than Fiction, No Place to be Somebody, Hellcab, Hero, and Cold Justice.  Now he’s developing “Star Crossed Lovers”, “Pope Frank in Venice”, while continuing to install his art works.

CAMILLE ROBINSON (Mary Bailey, Dec. 20 – Jan. 6) is a proud Artistic Affiliate of American Blues Theater. She is thrilled to be returning to this lovely, timeless show! She owes everything to her family for she would be nothing without their love and support. Recent Chicago theater credits include: Lizzie (Firebrand Theatre), Big River (Theatre at the Center), Jesus Christ Superstar (Paramount Theatre), A Wonder in My Soul (Victory Gardens Theater), Wonderful Town (Goodman Theatre), and Little Shop of Horrors (American Blues Theater). Recent TV/Film credits include: Chicago Med and Chicago PD (NBC). Represented by Gray Talent Group.

Community Service
For this production, American Blues Theater will support and partner with the USO and U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs, and Misericordia. American Blues also continues its “Pink Previews” to donate proceeds from all preview performances to The Lynn Sage Foundation for breast cancer research.

Soldier Spotlight During each performance, American Blues Theater honors one serviceman or servicewoman with a short personal tribute, a projected photo, and two (2) complimentary tickets. Submissions should be sent to American Blues Theater. There are limited spots available for the 2017 production. Neither you nor the nominee must be present to receive the spotlight.  For more information, contact Elyse Dolan at 

About American Blues Theater
Winner of the American Theatre Wing’s prestigious 2016 National Theatre Company Award, American Blues Theater is a premier arts organization with an intimate environment that patrons, artists, and all Chicagoans call home.  American Blues Theater explores the American identity through the plays it produces and communities it serves. The diverse and multi-generational artists have established the second-oldest professional Equity Ensemble theater in Chicago.  The 36-member Ensemble has 530+ combined years of collaboration on stage. As of 2017, the theater and artists received 195 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations that celebrate excellence in Chicago theater and over 35 Black Theatre Alliance Awards. The artists are honored with Pulitzer Prize nominations, Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Emmy Awards and numerous other accolades.   American Blues Theater programs and activities are made possible, in part by funding by The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at Prince, the Shubert Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, SMART Growth Grant, Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Anixter Foundation, Actors’ Equity Foundation, and the Chip Pringle Fund. ComEd is the Season Lighting Sponsor.

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