It’s A Wonderful Life:
The Radio Play
Adapted from the Frank Capra film
Directed by Jason W. Gerace
American Theater Co., 1909 W. Byron (map)
thru Dec 31 | tickets: $35-$40 | more info
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|American Theater Company presents|
|It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play|
Review by K.D. Hopkins
It may come as a surprise to Generation Z, but there was a time when America ran on radio rather than Dunkin Donuts. The sounds and stories were known to any household that had a radio. The voices over the airwaves were what brought people together rather than being lost in our isolating personal electronics.
The American Theater Company (ATC) has brought those golden days of broadcast back to life for the tenth year with It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play. There is a whole different dimension to the story without the familiar faces of James Stewart and Donna Reed. Radio programs used to have audiences and live bands for the serials and variety programs that graced the airwaves. ATC faithfully reproduces the look and sounds of the 1940’s down to the Foley guy making the sound of collapsing furniture with a mouthful of sticks.
The audience is invited inside by a young man holding a ‘quiet please’ sign and then warmed up with instructions on the applause sign. Station WATC also encourages the audience to write audiograms to be read over the airwaves during intermission and sponsor announcements. It is a delightful way to spend an evening and definitely family friendly.
The cast is visually and aurally gorgeous in 1940’s costume and using the vernacular of the times. The ladies all wear poinsettia corsages and beautifully tailored dresses in the muted colors of the times. The styled wigs are in the carefully sculpted and pinned mode as well. The men wear suites or sweater vests and suspenders. I imagined that they wore sock garters even if they didn’t. It was a time when everyone took more care with their appearance and looked respectable. Some call it homogenous-I call it well appointed and cool.
The cast plays multiple roles with the exception of the Foley artist Rick Cubes and pianist Rhapsody Snyder. Both of these artists are amazing. What a joy it was to see all of the magic behind the scenes of sound on the radio. Hanging chimes, sheet metal and old typewriters are just a few of the items that make thunderclaps and the announcement of Clarence’s wings. Ms. Snyder adds spot-on musical embellishment.
Chris Amos as the Announcer is quite funny with his briar stem pipe and ascot. He performs the sponsor announcements as well and reads some of the audiograms. If you are old enough to remember Gary Owens from "Laugh In," then you will really appreciate the nuances. If you are not old enough – get Netflix or Hulu. The sponsors of WATC are actual vendors and stores in the Chicago area. Walter E. Smythe, The Old Town School of Folk Music, and Staub’s Hardware are Chicago classics that have been in business since at least the 1940’s. The commercial for Old Town has the makings of a classic like the Empire Man with Mike Tepeli on the ukulele.
The lead characters of George and Mary Bailey are played by Christopher McLinden and Mary Winn Heider. They have a lovely chemistry that is wholesome and yet one understands how the Baileys end up with four kids. McLinden is poignant as the man who wanted to see the world and then wishes he had never been born. Heider is absolutely charming as Mary Hatch and in the role of George Bailey’s eavesdropping mother.
I particularly liked Margaret Graham, who plays the role of the floozy-ish Violet, Mrs. Hatch, and baby Zuzu. She has a perfect retro look and can bend her voice from a woman who’s been around the block to a sweet kindergartener. She would be perfect as Olive Oyl if anyone ever does Popeye on stage – and I mean that as the highest compliment! (Shelley Duvall bugged me in the movie role.) Ms. Graham goes from slinky sister with a questionable reputation to pushy Ms. Hatch with grace and ease.
I was very pleased to see Mike Nussbaum as Clarence and Mr. Potter. I remember him from Mamet’s film "House of Games" as well as other Chicago theater productions. He is a national acting treasure. It’s delightful to see him voicing the wingless and hapless angel Clarence and then take on the role of the menacing, slimy Mr. Potter.
Philip Earl Johnson also personifies the gestures and voices of the 1940’s. He is fantastic as Mr. Bailey, Uncle Billy, and Joseph who sends Clarence on his mission. He and Mr. Tepeli have great scenes together in the style of Abbott and Costello.
Drama, comedy, and a few sweet tears are to be had in this wonderful production with milk and cookies after the show! It’s a wonderful tradition for the holiday season that has been extended through New Year’s Eve. Take a step back in time to see 2011 to the door.
It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play continues through December 31st at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map). Tickets are $35-$40, and are available by phone (773-409-4125) or through the theater’s website. More information at atcweb.org.
Chris McLinden (George Bailey), Mike Nussbaum (Potter, Clarence), Phillip Earl Johnson (Mr. Bailey, Uncle Billy, Joseph, others), Mary Winn Heider (Mary Hatch, Mrs. Bailey), Mike Tepeli (Harry Bailey, Ernie, others), Maggie Graham (Violet, Mrs. Hatch, others), Chris Amos (Announcer, others), Rick Kubes (Foley Operator), Rhapsody Snyder (pianist)
behind the scenes