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American Blues Theater brings ‘Wonderful Life’ into living rooms — of audience and cast

In its 19th year of presenting the holiday show, the cast will be bringing their work home with them, acting on Zoom — due to the COVID-19 shutdown of theaters — in front of sets tailor-made for their living spaces.

Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler perform in the 2019 American Blues Theater production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!.” They’re back for this year’s virtual stream of the hugely popular holiday musical.
Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler perform in the 2019 American Blues Theater production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!.” They’re back for this year’s virtual stream of the hugely popular holiday musical.
Michael Brosilow

Throughout the many years they’ve been putting on their holiday production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!,” the team at the American Blues Theater has gotten used to bouncing around venues, having performed the “radio play” on five different stages over the last 19 years. This year, though, the cast will be bringing their work home with them, acting on Zoom — due to the COVID-19 shutdown of theaters — in front of sets tailor-made for their living spaces.

If there was any production well-suited for the transition to virtual theater, it would be ABT’s version of the 1946 Christmas classic, presented in a 1940s radio broadcast style. Still, artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside acknowledges there are going to have to be some changes.

“We knew going into this year, it would be entirely anachronistic to have patrons log in on their laptops and feel they’ve been transformed into another time,” Whiteside said. “The conceit is, it’s 2020, these are artists who are going to tell you this story that is set in the 1940s with as much as artistry as we can do via Zoom, and transport you back through the story. But the actual framing device is going to be very much present: We’re all in this together, this is a pandemic, we’re all just doing what we can to gather and have a sense of community.”

Through all the changes, though, Frank Capra’s timeless Christmas story will stay the same. George Bailey, on the brink of despair, gets a guided tour from an angel showing what life would be like for his loved ones if he never existed. Set designer Grant Sabin will set the mood by designing backdrops that the actors will install in their own homes, adapting the sets and props he’s constructed in his 11 years working on the show to meet the circumstances.

“What’s going to be interesting is usually we’re preparing whatever theater space we’re coming into, setting the stage for the audience and welcoming them to our space,” Sabin said. “This year is going to be reversed a little bit; instead of them coming to the theater, we’re coming to their living rooms. Going back to the idea of a broadcasted show, now we’re just using newer technology, but we’re hoping it has a similar feel.”

Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron, who are married and have both acted in “It’s a Wonderful Life” for years, don’t mind adapting their living space to meet the needs of the show. They’re just glad for the chance to rekindle what has become a holiday tradition for them.

“It always feels like coming home again in a lot of ways. Sometimes the only time we work with these people is during this time so its always something we look forward to, being back with our friends,” Cameron said. “Although the show is going to look a lot different this year, I think we’re all hoping to maintain that comfort and that familiarity, and that warm hug that the audience feels that we feel.”

For Mahler, who also serves as the show’s music director, one of the biggest adjustments will be adapting the songs to a digital format. While it won’t be a problem for him and Cameron, who will be live streaming together, Zoom’s technology simply doesn’t allow for multiple actors to harmonize or play together, meaning actors will have to play their own instruments and carry vocal sections on their own. Additionally, it may be impossible to avoid little glitches that come with video call territory.

“Problems are unavoidable, to some degree, but in live theater things can go wrong, too, so it’ll just be a matter of us all paying attention and being ready to deal with problems that may arise,” Mahler said.

Whiteside said ABT will be keeping the Zoom “lobby” open before and after the show, allowing audience members — some of whom have been attending the annual production for years — to virtually mingle with each other and with the cast. The actors are still going to do “audiograms,” or shoutouts during the show, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and honor a healthcare worker at every performance. The only tradition they won’t be able to replicate is the post-show milk and cookies that cast members would hand out to the audience in the theater lobby.

“I don’t think one can compare theater to a Zoom experience, but I do think the idea that there is a coming together and listening to a story, sharing space for 90 minutes and feeling some sense of community, is really important,” Whiteside said. “I would say right now, that seems priceless, because we all want so badly right now to unite.”