‘It’s a Wonderful Life: Live’ — a Chicago holiday favorite remains faithful to beloved film

“It’s a perfect story of mankind grappling with their existence … what it is to be content and happy. It reaches all audiences,” says American Blues Theater artistic director Wendy Whiteside.

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Ian Paul Custer (from left), Brandon Dahlquist and John Mohrlein are among the cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!”

Ian Paul Custer (from left), Brandon Dahlquist and John Mohrlein are among the cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!”

Michael Brosilow

American Blues Theater’s annual staging of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” aims to satisfy two disparate groups: The people who can quote Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film line for line, and everyone else, including those who’ve never even heard of Clarence the angel or Zuzu’s petals.

Wendy Whiteside, ABT’s artistic director, was among those who came to the story blind.

“In 2004, I saw the production at our theater. I remember just weeping and someone said to me, ‘You should see the movie.’ I said, ‘What? There’s a movie?” recalled Whiteside. “So my experience is being introduced to our play first. It’s got to serve the audience that might be new to it. There are so many people who haven’t seen the movie, especially the younger generation.”

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‘It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!’

When: Nov. 14 — Jan. 4

Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

Tickets: $19-$69

Info: americanbluestheater.com


The show, now in its 18th year, adheres faithfully to Capra’s screenplay, hitting all the highlights of the life of Everyman George Bailey, who’s granted the wish to have never been born and then shown the hole his absence leaves in his family and town.

But ABT made the production its own by opting to stage “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a 1940s live radio play.

The set is designed like a radio studio, and the script plays up the fictional broadcast conceit down to the commercial breaks. As a wink to the film, the radio announcer, played by Michael Mahler, kicks off the show with a “soon to be a major motion picture” line.

Each actor tackles multiple roles, with the cast of eight creating the 30-plus characters who populate the fictional town of Bedford Falls.

Attempting to replicate any of the film’s indelible performances — particularly filling the impossibly large shoes of Jimmy Stewart, who IS George Bailey — would be a tall order, so Whiteside, who directs the show, specifically instructs her actors not to try.

“We do not encourage our actors to mimic the actors in the film. We’re not going to be doing impressions,” she said.

What the show does attempt to mirror is the spirit of Capra’s movie.

“You can tell Jimmy [Stewart’s] commitment. Everyone is just 100 percent believing in the story,” said Whiteside. “We try to make sure that we are being completely honest with the emotions.”

That includes her own performance as Mary Bailey, which Whiteside is stepping into this year, opposite Brandon Dahlquist’s George. (Camille Robinson, who normally plays Mary, was unavailable but it’s not a permanent break, Whiteside assured.)

“Mary Bailey is, I feel, one of the most perfect spirits. It’s just a blessing to live in that role,” said Whiteside. “My husband is always happy when I play Mary because he says I’m nicer around the house.”

One wholly original and utterly captivating aspect of ABT’s production is the use of a foley artist, Shawn Goudie, to create live sound effects. Children, especially, are thoroughly fascinated with Goudie, said Whiteside.

“He does a great baby crying, car doors opening and shutting, he does a great dog barking,” said Whiteside. “He has sort of like a workshop full of props. Of course, the bell, that’s the most special.” (Spoiler alert for “Wonderful Life” newbies: Bells are how angels get their wings.)

With more than a decade under his belt working on the show, Goudie has his timing down pat, Whiteside said, syncing his sounds with the actors without drowning out or detracting from the dialogue.

“It always just works perfectly,” she said. “It just is effortless.”

The magic created on stage is all there in the story, which Capra adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift.”

“One of the reasons that this is a classic is that the story does remind us of how fragile life is,” Whiteside said. “It’s a perfect story of mankind grappling with their existence … what it is to be content and happy. It reaches all audiences.”

Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.

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