Thursday, November 22, 2018

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life, Live in Chicago! At Stage 773 Through January 5, 2019

ChiIL Live Shows on our radar

American Blues Theater Presents

17th Anniversary Production of
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
From Frank Capra’s film
Directed by Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside
Music Direction by Ensemble Member Michael Mahler
November 15, 2018 – January 5, 2019

All Productions Photos by Michael Brosilow

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life, Live in Chicago! 
By Catherine Hellmann, guest critic

Yes, we’ve all seen the Frank Capra classic movie with the earnest Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the lovely Donna Reed as George’s eternally patient/upbeat wife Mary and miserly old Lionel Barrymore as evil Mr. Potter. Even if you watch this film every year and have lines of dialogue memorized, you still must see American Blues Theater’s charming “live radio” broadcast set in Chicago at “Radio WABT”  in 1944. (Oh, to be in the 1940’s when our country was united and proud. Sigh…)

If all the broo-ha-ha about the holidays, shopping, cards, family, decorating, cold weather, minimal parking in the city, and stress gets you down, then you REALLY need this show. From the beautiful solo numbers, and a kick-ass barbershop quartet rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” to the milk and cookies served by the actors in the lobby after the show, you can’t possibly stay in a grumpy mood for long. There is a quiz of holiday songs to open the show. The lady in front of me won by quickly identifying “Deck the Halls, and won Christmas socks which was “just what she wanted.” The cast leads sing-along Christmas carols and has a creative, funny bit about how in the 1940’s, who could possibly have a phone in the audience that may cause a disruption?

The entire cast is delightful and so talented. Brandon Dahlquist is marvelous as George Bailey, with his sincere and all good-natured temperament until his heart-breaking meltdown and final redemption; Dahlquist is just perfect in the role. John Mohrlein shines as the wicked Mr. Potter as well as the genuinely concerned future angel Clarence. Mohrlein should be a pro---amazingly, he has been playing these roles since the show’s inception 17 years ago! (That has to be some kind of Chicago record.) Ian Paul Custer and James Joseph are fun to watch and listen to as they switch characters’ voices and mannerisms continually. Custer has a turn as a nosy old neighbor urging George to kiss Mary, which is hilarious. (I asked the actors after the show how do they keep the different voices straight. Joseph said it is like doing a musical for them after awhile.) Camille Robinson is sweet as Mary Bailey; she and Dara Cameron also have lovely singing voices. Cameron was particularly adorable mimicking the children’s voices.

In between acts of the radio show, the actors sing commercials for Com Ed, a local animal hospital, and neighborhood dining at Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market, among others. The lyrics and tunes are just as enjoyable as the actual program. Matt Edmonds leads all the music very capably on the piano and also acts as the announcer and various voices.

My daughter’s favorite part was watching the clever sound effects produced by Shawn J. Goudie. He had a small door to open and close for entrances and exits, a tub of water with a plunger for the river scene, and glasses to clink when George is in the bar. Kids will love this aspect of the show, and I admit that it fascinated me, too.    

I can be kind of a Scrooge around the Christmas season. After seeing this inspiring rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life, I was ready to go home, drag my artificial Christmas tree up from basement storage, and set it up in the living room. As Auntie Mame would sing,”We need a little Christmas. Right this very minute. We need a little Christmas now.” You will leave Theater 773 reflecting on all the blessings in your life.  

Catherine Hellmann is a teacher, writer, and theater junkie. She has tried to inspire urban and rural middle schoolers for over twenty years. A mother of three, she is thrilled to once again claim Chicago as home.  

American Blues Theater continues its 2018-2019 Season with its 17th 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 November 15, 2018 – January 5, 2019 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago.  The official press opening is November 17, 2018 at 7:30 p.m.

As the second-longest holiday play in Chicago, the American Blues Ensemble treats Chicago audiences to a live 1940s radio broadcast of holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life for the 17th year. 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 when audiences are treated to milk and cookies served by the cast.  

The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! includes Brandon Dahlquist (George Bailey), Dara Cameron* (Violet), Ian Paul Custer* (Harry), Matt Edmonds (Announcer/Pianist), Shawn Goudie* (Foley), James Joseph* (Uncle Billy), John Mohrlein* (Clarence/Mr. Potter), and Camille Robinson* (Mary Bailey).

The creative team includes Austin Cook* (score composer), Grant Sabin* (scenic), Christopher J. Neville* (costumes), Katy Peterson (lights) Elyse Dolan* (properties) and Paul Deziel* (projection design). The stage manager is Shandee Vaughan*.

*Denotes Ensemble and Artistic Affiliates of American Blues Theater

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

November 15, 2018 – January 5, 2019

Previews: November 15 - November 17, 2018
Regular Run: November 18, 2018 – January 5, 2019

Wednesdays:  7:30pm
Thursdays:  7:30pm
Fridays:  7:30pm
Saturdays:  4:30pm & 7:30pm
Sundays:  2:30pm

Additional performances on November 23 at 4:30pm; November 29 at 2:30pm; and January 1 at 7:30pm

No performances on November 17 at 4:30pm; November 22; November 29 at 7:30; or January 5 at 7:30pm

Arrive 10 min early for prizes and audiograms

Holiday Events: 
Children 12 & under receive keepsakes on December 2 (Hanukkah) and December 23 (Santa visits)

Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago

Ticket prices:
$19 - $59

Box Office:
Buy online at or by calling 773.654.3103.

About American Blues Theater
Winner of the American Theatre Wing’s prestigious 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 35-member Ensemble has 600+ combined years of collaboration on stage. As of 2018, the theater and artists received 204 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations that celebrate excellence in Chicago theater and 35 Black Theatre Alliance Awards. The artists are honored with Pulitzer Prize nominations, Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Emmy Awards and numerous other accolades.   

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