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Tuesday, March 5

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Theater Mon Dec 13 2010

Review: American Blues Theater's "It's a Wonderful Life"

1. John Mohrlein_Gwendolyn Whiteside_Kevin R. Kelly_ IAWL 20.jpg

Pictured from left to right: John Mohrlein (Clarence/Mr. Potter), Gwendolyn Whiteside (Mary Bailey), and Kevin R. Kelly (George Bailey) in ABT's It's a Wonderful Life. Photo by The Stage Channel.

From now through December 31, American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life, transports viewers to another era, for a 1940s-style live radio show, featuring the classic holiday tale of George Bailey. The iconic charm of The Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., provides an ideal location for the production, and the performance, directed by Marty Higginbotham, warms hearts again this season.

The cast greets theater-goers with lively, casual conversation and Christmas carols from the piano as they enter the house. Actors weave through the aisles handing out "Audiograms" on which audience members write messages to friends or loved ones, which are read intermittently during commercial breaks. On the stage stand three vintage microphones with broad rectangular heads. The piano sits off to the left, near the authentic-looking "On Air" and "Applause" light-up signs. A Christmas tree, a couch, and the sound effects corner complete the stage area. As audience continues to trickle in, the cast engages visitors in Christmas carol sing-along. After a few directions from the announcer (Ed Kross), the show begins and you're plunged into the famous tale.

Admittedly, it takes a little bit of fighting to expel the performances of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed that naturally spring to mind with each and every line (that is, if you've seen Frank Copra's 1946 film about thirty times, as I have). ABT's actors remain true to the characterizations many of us are so familiar with from the film, yet make the characters their own--a difficult balance to achieve. The whimsical method of delivery, transporting viewers back to a 1940s radio show, and the characterizations communicated by each actor quickly sweep up the audience.

4. John Mohrlein_Ashley Bishop_ ABT IAWL 2010. Photo The Sta.jpg

John Mohrlein and Ashely Bishop (Violet) in ABT's It's a Wonderful Life . Photo by The Stage Channel.

Individual performances by Kevin R. Kelly (George Bailey), Gwendolyn Whiteside (Mary Bailey), John Mohrlein (Clarence/Mr. Potter), and others prove largely convincing, and heart-warming. Mohrlein's portrayal of the diabolical Mr. Potter so closely mimics Lionel Barrymore's performance of the role in Copra's film, it's uncanny. Mohrlein exhibits his remarkable versatility through his equally convincing, yet contrastingly comical portrayal of the good-natured angel, Clarence. Additionally, Ashley Bishop who plays the sultry Violet, also did the voice of Zuzu in the touching scene between the Zuzu and George. Bishop provides the most believable child's voice in the entire production.

The commercials, of course, were a big hit, providing added whimsy throughout the show. Local businesses find their way into the program via ABT's vintage-sounding jingles, and lively commentary.

Tying everything together, Shawn J. Goudie, Foley, provided exceptional sound effects throughout. The atmospheric sounds, made the story believable, particularly as the cast joined in to create the cacophonous chatter of the Building & Loan run, and the sounds of the snowstorm during the second half of the show. Austin Cook, the production's pianist, set the mood for both the story and the commercials, stitching the scenes together with music.

If you're looking for a holiday classic that will put you in the seasonal mood, allow the American Blues Theater to transport you back to another time and space. The experience is quite fun, and you'll leave the Biograph cloaked in holiday spirit.

American Blues Theater presents It's a Wonderful Life now through December 31 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances take place as follows: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (12/22, 12/29 only), Thursdays at 8 p.m.; Fridays at 3 p.m. (12/ 24 only), 5 p.m. (12/ 31 only) and 8 p.m.(11/26, 12/3 , 12/10, 12/17); Saturdays at 5 p.m. (12/11, 12/18 only) and 8 p.m. (no performances 12/25); and Sundays at 3 p.m. (also 6 p.m. 12/26 only).

Tickets are $20 for previews (through Dec. 5); $50 for press opening (Dec. 8), and $32-$40 for all other performances. For more information call the Victory Gardens box office at 773-871-3000 or visit

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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