Sunday, December 30, 2012

Onstage, 'It's a Wonderful Life' Has a Worthwhile Existence, By George -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play
American Theater Company, Chicago
Run Ended

I have long loved Frank Capra's classic 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life and have seen it several times, although not during this holiday season.

But until this year, I have never been prompted--nor even much tempted--to attend a Christmastime "radio play" of the famed movie, even though they have seemingly been a Chicago staple for several years.

In 2012 (and perhaps previously), not one but two theater companies in Chicago--American Theater Company and American Blues Theater--staged It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play within 2 miles of each other. I had read good things about both, but decided to go to the ATC version because the great Mike Nussbaum was in the cast.

Mind you, I went on the day before the run ended (for both troupes) so this review isn't going to help you much, unless when the chance to see this unique reading of It's a Wonderful Life rolls around next winter, like me you may be latently inspired to go.

While I wouldn't call it essential theater, the 90-minute staging was well-done and rather fun, particularly for a HotTix discount. Except for a few kids in the audience, I imagine most attendees were well-acquainted with the movie, which while perhaps not mandatory to enjoy the radio play, certainly added to the experience.

As I alluded to when I reviewed Freud's Last Session, any chance you get to see Nussbaum on stage is a treat. Here he "played" both Clarence and Mr. Potter, as well as other characters. As the terminology "radio play" references, It's a Wonderful Life is not acted out like a theatrical drama, but rather the movie script is read on stage (not quite line-for-line), with an occasional bit of acting.

Though it's enjoyable, and even heartwarming, to be reminded of the movie's storyline, what makes this work as theater is the pretense of taking place in a radio studio, circa 1948. Along with the voice actors, there is an emcee, stagehands, a foley (sound effects) artist and a pianist.

Everyone in the ATC version did a nice job, but along with Nussbaum, Cliff Chamberlain--who I've seen in several shows over the years--is demonstrably good as George Bailey. He channels Jimmy Stewart just enough for it to feel right, but not to the point that it seems overly gimmicky.

Sadieh Rifai likewise handles the Mary part quite nicely, embodying the character to the point where you feel the affection between her and George, while still straddling the line of being a voice actor, rather than fully acting out the part.

In what has been another highly enjoyable year of theater going--see my rundown of the Best Plays and Musicals I saw in 2012--this was a nice way to close it out.

And if you missed it, I imagine It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play will get its wings again next year. And of course, you can just watch the movie, which like Clarence--and Mike Nussbaum--never seems to get old.

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