A ‘Wonderful’ tradition worth seeing

There’s something about the holiday season that brings about the traditionalist in all of us. We make recipes that have been in the family for generations – whether we like them or not. We sing songs with words like “yea” and “thee” and “hop-along boots.” We watch movies that star people like Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart and Will Ferrell.

If You Go

  • It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
  • Through Dec. 31
  • Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
  • americanbluestheater.com

So while you’re in a nostalgic frame of mind, there’s no better way to celebrate the holidays than with a performance of American Blues Theater’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The show is based on the Capra/Stewart movie you know and love, although it somehow feels like it’s the other way around. After all, the 1944 radio show is set two years before Frank Capra’s seminal film even hit the big screen.

If you’re a radio show newbie like me, you might not know what to expect. The show uses eight actors, most of whom play multiple roles, to tell the beloved story of George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence, who explore what would happen if he was never born. The actors, wearing WWII-era clothing, step up to the microphones and use only their voices to convey different characters – something the cast does with ease. It’s accompanied by a live Foley artist (Shawn J. Goudie) who uses different props to create sounds like footsteps, winds and slamming doors – all making the production come alive.

By this point in time, the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been told and re-told, but the radio setting gives it a fresh perspective. And if you don’t at least have a lump in your throat when you hear Clarence say “No man is a failure who has friends,” well, you just might be dead inside.

At its heart, this is a Chicago production, based around the idea that it’s actually a radio broadcast from the WABT Studio on Lincoln Avenue. If you’re like me, you’ll get a real kick out of hearing the period-appropriate commercials for modern-day sponsors, as well as participating in an audience poll to see who traveled the farthest to get to the studio (apologies to that nice couple from Green Bay for all the boos). Come early to hear the cast perform some Christmas standards and even sing along on a few (words are posted on nearby screens). You’ll also want to fill out an Audiogram to be read during the broadcast, letting your family or friends know just how “wonderful” you think they are.

The theater space at Greenhouse Theater Center is small, so even those in the back row will feel intimately involved in the production. And by the time it’s over and you’re grabbing a cookie from George Bailey himself (post-show milk and cookies are complimentary and served by the cast), you’ll be bursting with holiday spirit.

Some traditions, it seems, only get better with age – and this one is definitely worth celebrating.

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