REVIEW: Holiday Tradition Meets Zoom Theatre with ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ at American Blues

I, like so many others around the world, am still coming to terms with the fact that I won’t see my family this holiday season. I won’t go home for the holidays, I won’t have anyone in my own home, and all those family traditions will have to be reimagined, if practiced at all. American Blues Theatre is reimagining some traditions of their own, adapting the second longest-running holiday play in Chicago for Zoom. It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is a retelling of Frank Capra’s classic film about one man’s integral role in his community. This cheerful (and unapologetically digital) adaptation invites the audience to revel in the strangeness and find something to celebrate from their own little square.

Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside approaches Zoom theatre with a complete understanding of its unique challenges. Rather than trying to replicate the in-person production, Whiteside leans into the democratic nature of the medium to develop a completely new experience that honors the heart of their tradition. The cast of It’s A Wonderful Life greets the audience in the Zoom meeting as if you just arrived at a holiday party. Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler are the hosts at the top of the show. Arrive 15 minutes early and enjoy entertainment from this couple, the only two sharing a Zoom screen. Their whimsical dynamic is an electrifying introduction to the evening. If you’re lucky, you might even catch Mahler’s Kermit the Frog impression.

Everyone enters the room on the same platform and agreements are made on how to move forward. Participants are asked to turn off their video and mute their mics at the start of the performance. The audience is given a shared responsibility for the production, and it works. Grant Sabin (scenic design) and Elyse Dolan (set dressing/properties design) unify the performers with a vibrant red backdrop, adorned with Christmas trees, wreaths, and twinkling lights. It is all incredibly intimate. The audience is invited into the performers’ homes, with a fair warning that children may run through the background at any time. By addressing the possible messiness that comes with remote live performance, the production fosters a sense of community with humility and grace.

The live Zoom play is all closeup, all the time. Without the use of their entire body, a raised eyebrow, a smirk, or a glance is the actor’s most powerful tool. The animated performances that color the productions are endlessly captivating. The specificity of each minor adjustment makes a character, forms a connection, or spells trouble ahead. Ian Paul Custer covers multiple characters, expertly contorting his face so that he is unrecognizable in each role.  John Mohrlein, who plays the angel Clarence and devil Mr. Potter, jumps between these two like night and day. It’s an acrobatic feat and a pleasure to witness.

Brandon Dahlquist and Audrey Billings play George and Mary Bailey, respectively. These two are tasked with the same character from beginning to end, and use the intimacy of the medium to establish a deep connection from a distance. When they lock eyes for the first time, the audience is caught between them and shares in that moment. These performances make great use of the tight frame and it is all beautifully orchestrated. George Bailey makes his plea to God, and desperation rolls over every curve of Dahlquist’s face. While the excellent voice acting, original music, and foley would make this a splendid audio play alone, the production benefits tenfold from the skilled physical performances.

It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! explores concepts of capitalism and community that resonate on a different level in 2020. This holiday season, many families will be missing someone from the table, millions of renters will face eviction on January 1st, local restaurants will experience added stress with the removal of outdoor seating, and small businesses will miss out on crucial foot traffic while big box stores profit from online shopping. It’s not looking great, but what we can learn from the people of Bedford Falls is that a shared community can save someone’s life. There is power in coming together, in looking out for your neighbor. Let’s all take a page from George Bailey’s book and find a way to contribute to our neighborhoods.

It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! will be performed live online six times per week from November 12 to January 2.

Audrey Billings, Mary Bailey
Manny Buckley, Joseph
Dara Cameron, Violet
Ian Paul Custer, Harry
Brandon Dahlquist, George Bailey
Shawn J. Goudie, Foley
Michael Mahler, Announcer/Pianist
John Mohrlein, Clarence/Mr. Potter

Gwendolyn Whiteside, Artistic Director/Director
Shandee Vaughan, Production and Stage Manager
Michael Mahler, Music Director and Jingle Composer
Grant Sabin, Scenic Design
Christopher J. Neville, Costume Design
Jared Gooding, Lighting Design
Elyse Dolan, Set Dressing/Properties Design
Rick Sims, Sound Design
Austin Cook, Score Composer

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