Chicago Theater Review: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (American Theater Company)

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by Dan Zeff on December 3, 2011

in Theater-Chicago


A stage adaptation of the movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in Connecticut in 1997 and, before long, the adaptation became a staple of the regional theater circuit during the Christmas season.  The show now challenges A Christmas Carol as the preeminent live theater attraction of the holidays.  There is something about the stage version of the film that tends to bring out the best in local theaters (there are at least three productions of the play this year in Chicago), but none is likely to be any better than the marvelous presentation by the American Theater Company (ATC).

It’s a Wonderful Life 2011 – American Theater Company – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffThe adaptation is staged as a radio play, circa 1946, about the same time as the release of the Frank Capra-directed motion picture.  The setting is a Chicago radio studio, with the ATC audience as the studio audience for the live radio performance.  Few audience members today would have seen the inside of a radio studio back in the golden age of radio drama, but the ATC set by Tom Burch (lit by Mac Vaughey) looks authentic: electric “On The Air” and “Applause” signs hang above the stage, a line of microphones stand at the front of the stage, a pianist (with the delightful name of Rhapsody Snyder) provides mood music on the left side, and the Foley Artist sound effects man (Rick Kubes), who presides over an assortment of noise-making objects, operates on the right.  The actors, wearing clothing and hairstyles of the mid-1940’s (neatly captured in Christine Pascual’s clothing designs), sit on a row of folding chairs at the rear of the playing area when they are not at the microphones (Stephanie Farina designed the sound).

The audience is invited to sing holiday songs, led by the actors, in the pre-program warm-up, and during program breaks, actors read warm and fuzzy holiday messages solicited from the audience.  The radio program format is complete with commercials from actual businesses in the theater’s neighborhood.

In 80 minutes, the adaptation tells the story of George Bailey, who grows up in the town of Bedford Falls.  George is a dreamer with ambitions to be a great traveler and architect. But the death of his father keeps him tied to his hometown, where he marries a local girl and tries to keep the town savings and loan to remain operational against the venality of the town villain, a skinflint named Potter.

The play opens in heaven, where a pair of angels looks down on George Bailey, as the despondent young man considers suicide after hearing from the scornful Potter that he’s worth more dead than alive.  Clarence, a junior grade angel, is sent down to earth to rescue George by showing him what a positive difference he has made throughout his life on the people around him.

The story has become a part of American pop culture through the popularity of the movie and, now, the annual appearance of the stage play; it’s amazing how strong a hold the narrative retains on the audience.  The viewers at ATC may take an amused, even patronizing, attitude toward the play during the radio studio preliminaries, but once the storytelling begins, their attention is riveted on the narrative.  The direction and performances do the rest.

It’s a Wonderful Life 2011 – American Theater Company – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The immediacy and intimacy of Jason Gerace’s staging draws the audience deep into the story, but he must also be credited with drawing out high level dramatic performances from his ensemble far beyond the demands of the script.  Since James Stewart played George Bailey in the movie, some live productions try to replicate Stewart’s mannerisms.  Christopher McLinden is tall and slender like Stewart, but he makes George Bailey his own character, performing with a passion and a depth I’ve never seen before in the role.  The production has the good fortune of featuring the inimitable Mike Nussbaum in the cast. Nussbaum, who will be 88 years old on December 29, is priceless in the contrasting characters of Clarence the angel and the nasty Mr. Potter.  Any play starring Mike Nussbaum is automatically mandatory watching, and his performance in this play is a total joy, including his deft stepping in the Charleston.

The cast size for the show is variable.  ATC uses seven performers, including McLinden and Nussbaum, and all play numerous parts and distinguish themselves whenever they step to the microphone: Mary Winn Heider is Bailey’s wife, Phillip Earl Johnson is the head angel, Mike Tepeli becomes assorted townspeople, Margaret Graham is the kind hearted town floozy, and Chris Amos plays the suitably unctuous station announcer.

I have seen productions of the play that tended toward the cutesy in milking the novelty of the radio presentation.  At ATC, once the story begins, the company is all business. The performers act out their multiple roles beyond the requirements of a radio play, where only the voices count.  George Bailey and his sweetheart really kiss and the actors really do the Charleston at a party scene, invisible though it would be to a radio audience.  But the ATC audience sees it all, and the theatrical three-dimensional performances hugely enhance the spectator’s enjoyment.

The format is a fun nostalgia trip, but it’s the story that makes the evening such a winner.  The narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life offers the same unbeatable combination of fantasy, realism, moralizing, and sentimentality that makes A Christmas Carol so magical.

It’s a Wonderful Life
American Theater Company in Chicago
ends on December 24, 2011
EXTENDED to December 30, 2011

[on March 4, 2018, American Theater Company
ceased operations; more on this story at Chicago Tribune]

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