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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ radio staging allows a brief, uplifting escape from 21st century woes

American Blues Theater lassos a miracle, a show that, over 20 editions, has worked as both great storytelling and a flashback to another age of show business.

Yuchi Chiu (from left), Dara Cameron, Audrey Billings, Brandon Dahlquist, Manny Buckley and Joe Dempsey play radio actors playing movie characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago.”
Michael Brosilow

“Can you believe it’s already December?” asked actor Michael Mahler from the stage at Victory Gardens Theater. “My goodness, the 1940s are flying by, aren’t they?”

While it was a throwaway gag — maybe improvised, maybe scripted — Mahler’s joke neatly accomplished two goals. First, it acknowledged our tenuous relationship with the passing of time after nearly two years of pandemic conditions: How is it already another holiday season? Did 2021 even happen?

Second, it underlines the gentle conceit of American Blues Theater’s holiday perennial, “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago.” Forget your 21st-century troubles for an hour and a half, this show says, and travel back with us to America’s post-World War II afterglow.

American Blues asks us to imagine ourselves as the studio audience for a radio-play version of the beloved Frank Capra film, which starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a humble pillar of the small town of Bedford Falls. In a moment of desperation, George’s guardian angel Clarence swoops in to show him just how much worse off the world would have been had George never been born.

There’s no playwright credited for American Blues’ adaptation. You might wonder if the same copyright confusion that led to the Capra movie being believed to be in the public domain for many years — thus leading to the box-office flop’s evolution into a Christmas-season classic via endless repetition on broadcast TV — applies here as well.

Whoever the adapter, ABT’s version is a faithful if compressed retelling of the screenplay by Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, itself adapted from a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern.

George (here played by Brandon Dahlquist) is a stand-up guy whose yen to explore the world outside Bedford Falls is repeatedly frustrated by circumstance and duty. Archangel Joseph (Manny Buckley) shows apprentice angel Clarence (Joe Dempsey) a highlight reel of George’s life. This includes George saving his kid brother Harry (Yuchi Chiu) from drowning in a frozen lake, George’s courtship and marriage to the practical and forthright Mary (Audrey Billings, and his defense of his family’s small building-and-loan operation from the predatory slumlord Mr. Potter (Dempsey again).

The film clocks in at a little over two hours. ABT’s rendition takes up at most 65 of the stage production’s 90 uninterrupted minutes, but it doesn’t feel shortchanged.

The rest of the stage show’s running time is devoted to the trappings of the radio-play pretense. The performers are on stage from the moment the house opens, addressing one another by their real-life names, as versions of their real-life selves. (All eight bodies onstage, who include the charming Dara Cameron and the talented Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie in addition to those already named, are stage actors playing radio actors who playing film characters.)

For a good 15 minutes or so after the audience has taken its seats, the cast engages in “pre-show” audience warm-up business: leading Christmas carol sing-alongs, bantering with out-of-town visitors and generally setting the holiday spirit.

Mahler (who also serves as music director and multi-instrumentalist), Dahlquist, Goudie and Chiu deliver a barbershop-quartet style “Winter Wonderland.;Cameron and Mahler join forces for a spare rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

In the performance of “Wonderful Life” itself, the actors generally let the concept be the star. It’s undeniably fun to watch the masterful Dempsey flip between Clarence and Potter, just as Buckley expertly switches off between Joseph and George’s bumbling Uncle Billy. Sometimes, the mere choreography of the actors trading off space in front of the three foreground microphones gives you a hint of how thrilling the new medium of radio must have been back in the day.

But there are moments where director Gwendolyn Whiteside cleverly lets her actors drop the meta facade and just inhabit their characters. At the point when, in the film, George and Mary share a telephone receiver, and the closeness of their faces answers a question they’d both been trying to avoid, Whiteside has Dahlquist and Billings share a microphone. Lighting designer Katy Peterson Viccellio mutes the rest of the stage, and, for a second, the tension is all too real.

This is American Blues Theater’s 20th edition of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I first saw the company’s version in 2007. (Last winter, when theaters were dark, ABT produced it as a true audio play, livestreamed online).

Among the enduring traditions of this production are the “commercial breaks,” when cast members read messages provided by members of that night’s audience. On Friday, many of these missives included plays on the phrase “wonderful life.” They also confirmed, via private sentiments publicly delivered, that this production has become as vital a part of the holidays for some families as the black-and-white classic it’s based on.