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It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
by Kerry Reid

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Playwright: Adapted from the 1946 film ( screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling ), based on the short story The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern

At: American Blues Theater, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-654-3103;; $19-$59. Runs through: Jan. 5

It's somehow fitting that American Blues Theater's annual radio-play presentation of It's a Wonderful Life is second only to the Goodman's A Christmas Carol as the longest running annual holiday show in the city. Charles Dickens may have been first out of the box with a holiday narrative about an unhappy man finding out the real meaning of life—with supernatural assistance—but Frank Capra's film covered it in American tropes.

Gwendolyn Whiteside's staging hews closely to the company traditions, from the "audiograms" that audience members write for loved ones to be read during the show, to the milk and cookies served by the cast in the lobby afterward. Jingles by Michael Mahler promoting sponsors ( including ComEd and Fahlstrom's Fresh Fish Market ) and a shout-out to a veteran remind us that WABT ( as the fictional radio station is called ) is as invested in good old American capitalism and patriotism as the citizens of Bedford Falls.

This show has a fair amount of schmaltz sprinkled in. ( The phrase "Capra-corn" exists for a reason. ) But dark times require light and love, and that is what the American Blues ensemble provides in abundance, along with holiday songs and 1940s pop standards. Camille Robinson, who also plays Mary Bailey with easy charm, brought down the house before the house lights went down with Someone to Watch Over Me and Dara Cameron, who plays Violet and Zuzu, found wistfulness amid the cheer with I'll Be Seeing You.

Brandon Dahlquist's George doesn't go quite as dark as past incarnations I've seen. But he and the rest of the cast do a fine job of honoring the original roles without resorting to mere mimicry. John Mohrlein, the only cast member to have been with the show every year, delivers a delightful double whammy as sneering Mr. Potter ( who to my ears has more than a little Dick Cheney in his demeanor ) and as fluttery Clarence. Ian Paul Custer and James Joseph fill out most of the rest of the male roles, including Harry and Uncle Billy, respectively, with quicksilver aplomb. Matt Edmonds' announcer/pianist and Shawn J. Goudie's solid foley work keep the radio-play conceit in high gear without overpowering the story.

Ironically, George's financial problems are solved mostly by his millionaire pal Sam Wainwright coming through. Capra wasn't advocating socialist revolution, even though George says, "There's enough in the world for everyone's need, but not everyone's greed." But the spirit of radical compassion that saves George's soul is something we can all use this time of year.

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