When it comes to holiday reformation stories, George Bailey is up there with Scrooge and the Grinch in terms of sheer ubiquity this time of year. For 19 seasons, American Blues Theater has offered its own radio play/live-broadcast version of Frank Capra’s 1946 movie classic. The iconic plot follows a familiar arc. (Spoilers ahead, obviously. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t know the story.)
George Bailey resolves to commit suicide after his finances and consequently his sense of self crater. “You’re worth more dead than alive,” George’s wealthy nemesis Mr. Potter sneers after the Bailey Building and Loan suffers what seems like an irrecoverable financial loss. George believes Mr. Potter, and concludes his entire life has been worthless. George’s salvation at the hands of Clarence, a Mark Twain-reading, wingless, junior-varsity-level-at-best angel, completes the tale.
For its 2020 virtual pandemic season production, ABT bluntly begins the Zoom Age show (yes, it is a live Zoom show with cast members in those familiar onscreen rectangles) by stating that this year’s production is obviously challenged. For those who’ve seen the production on years past, there’s no hiding the lack of a meticulously re-created vintage sound-booth set. No vintage costumes. No milk, cookies and Santa in the lobby post-show.
Or as co-host Michael Mahler explained opening night: “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’re barely wearing pants.”
Despite the obstacles, director Gwendolyn Whiteside makes the show do its job. “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” is inarguably heart-warming and entertaining. The 80-minute production also makes a convincing case for the belief that good people wield real power. Finally, it is a piercing look at the forces that rob people of that belief. As for those rectangles: Most of the scenes are only one or two people: Maximize their size and the format is more movie than business meeting.
The mood is set by hosts Mahler and soprano Dara Cameron, who is also his wife. Mahler (also the music director) serves Bob Barker by way of Michael J. Fox, if both could sing and play multiple instruments. It’s a fine combination. Cameron exudes a warmth that could defrost a pre-Marley Scrooge and delivers a soprano as sparkling as an east-facing icicle at sunup. You’ll (Yule?) want to tune-in to the preshow, where the pair lead sing-alongs with the cast.
Peppy jingles (by Mahler) for the production’s sponsors are interspersed with clever asides about unemployment, health insurance and arts funding that may make you smirk or sob or both. The jingles have exactly the right mix of cheese, irony and effective salesmanship. It’s an impressive balancing act.
Brandon Dahlquist plays George. The casting seems unlikely at first. At least in terms of 1940s commercial typecasting, Dahlquist is more bumper-jawed superhero than boy-next-door. Doesn’t matter. He makes the role his own, from young George’s brash, teenage-boy swagger to the disillusionment that consumes him as he ages. His climb to an older, wiser survivor rings true.
Which brings us to John Mohrlein, who has been playing Mr. Potter and Clarence the Angel since ABT debuted the show. As the nefarious Potter, Mohrlein has always displayed a one-in-a-million-or-so uncanny ability to channel the late, great Lionel Barrymore, who played the malevolent villain Potter to Jimmy Stewart’s affable hero George in the film version. Mohrlein does so this year, but there’s a hardness to the performance that’s new villainy, practiced and polished to implacable iciness. Mohrlein’s Clarence is slightly doofy, almost too much the childish naif. Like George, you’ll be inclined to dismiss the broadly bumbling angel’s relentlessly perky cheeriness until his argument is made in full.
As George’s father, watch for Manny Buckley’s gimlet-eyed stare after George calls him a “sap.” The moment is a GIF of infinite use. Buckley also plays Clarence’s supervisor angel, Joseph, sighing periodically with the exasperated air of an older brother forced to babysit his much younger sibling.
As George’s sweetheart/wife Mary, Audrey Billings shines. Her solo soprano launches and closes an all-cast chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” worthy of a Midnight Mass at a cathedral. Given the limitations of performing intricate harmonies when each musician is physically solo in a separate building, the group’s sound is glorious. The sound and music team — Cook, Mahler, Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie, sound designer Rick Sims — have done wonderful work.
The production is not a substitute for live theater. No longer, for example, can one readily determine whether the audience is in fact now crying communally. But in a holiday season when little is normal, “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live In Chicago!” is worth making an effort and a potent reminder of why we celebrate, whatever our customs. As for the “no pants” quip: Know that everyone actually looks quite festive and snazzy, thanks to costume designer Christopher J. Neville . And kudos for lighting designer Jared Gooding, who figured out a way to film noir-ify the scenes where George sees what would have happened had he never been born.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.