Review: American Blues Theater’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is the don’t-miss show this lonely holiday season

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“Turn on your cameras,” say the cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” shortly after Zuzu’s bell-ringing has signaled yet another good day for angels, “we want to see you now.”

And with that request Thursday night, a bunch of little black Zoom squares were filled with, well, ordinary people, all blinking at the camera. Some featured a little clutch of related faces, wrinkled or diminutive or struggling to stay awake. Some contained just one. All were smiling.

Of all the changes that the pandemic has brought to the Chicago theater, predominantly calamitous, it is the annual American Blues Theater production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!,” as directed by Gwendolyn Whiteside, that is the most potent symbol of resilience.

Why? Well, for starters, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Even now. Vaccines are coming!

But the main thing here is that the entree is cooked live. Most theaters have rolled out some kind of tape or audio recording that’s already in the can, or filmed something without audiences. Fine as far as that goes. But they’re competing with everyone from Audible to Netflix to public radio.

American Blues, though, is performing the entire show live and in person via Zoom, every night. (Even though this show long has been set up as actors and a studio audience at a Golden Age radio taping, they did not take the easy audio way out.) Nothing is recorded, even for archival purposes.

They’ve achieved this safely by building a matching physical set, as designed by Grant Sabin, in the six different homes of the actors in the show. (Two of the mainstays of this annual production, Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler, are married to each other, for which Sabin and his fellow designers must have been grateful.) None of the backgrounds are virtual, as least as far as I could tell. Nothing is the work of some technological Mr. Potter.

As you may well know, live Zoom mixing is far from easy to pull off, especially when you want an audience with differing levels of technical competency to interact with the performers. But with a bit of humorous coaxing from the cast about views, mutes and cameras, most everybody can get there these days. As Mahler said at one point: Anything can work on Zoom if you try hard enough. But that only works when the professionals have everything down cold, or rather warm. They truly do here.

American Blues knows how to tell this story: this is the show’s 19th year. Old hands like Brandon Dalquist, Ian Paul Custer and John “Clarence” Mohrlein have been showing up for eons, with Manny Buckley and Audrey Billings more recent additions. The best part, though, has always been the stuff alongside the main screenplay of the movie — the pre-show musical numbers, the musical words from the sponsors. With that in mind, I popped back in on Saturday night, just in time to hear a singalong of “Hallelujah” (with apologies to Leonard Cohen), Cameron’s lovely rendition of “Silver Bells” (following an audience poll), a name-that-tune trivia contest (with a highly competitive kid’s edition), and best of all, the cast and audience’s combined tribute to healthcare workers.

Sometimes critics watch shows and find themselves wanting to tell certain people about what is to be found here. This was true here, so let me make some suggestions.

If you are lonely this holiday season, this show will make you feel less so, even if just for a few minutes. If you are far from loved ones, you could actually all meet up for a couple of hours during this show from your different homes (anywhere in the world) and even send each other some singing telegrams without additional charge. It is about as close as you can get to going to a holiday show together, especially if you arrive at least five minutes early and stick around afterwards for the little post-show party. That’s the beauty of liveness, it imparts a sense of togetherness. Even on this chilliest of platforms. The coldness of the corporate “you’re muted” experience is mitigated with kindness here, which is the biggest achievement of all.

One last point. To pull this off, the actors had to be willing to take some personal risks: Cameron and Mahler, all retro-chic and glammed up in the basement, were clearly worried their young kid might exit his bedroom at any moment and Zoom bomb his way into their temporary Capra-esque fantasy. Should that ever happen, he would be welcome, of course. That kind of thing is exactly what we are all missing so very much.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” plays through Jan. 2 (including a rare Christmas Eve performance). Capacity is limited to 90 for each performance. For tickets ($25-$55), call 773-654-3103 or visit

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.


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