In the foreground is a man at the piano. Two women stand on either side of another man standing behind the pianist. In the background, we see a Christmas tree and another man and woman looking on.
The ensemble of It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! at American Blues Theater Credit: Michael Brosilow

Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic film is packed frame-by-frame with small moments of storytelling perfection, and as I get older, there’s one that just guts me like a fish. Exhausted, panicked, and facing certain financial and reputational ruin, George Bailey tries in vain to cajole Zuzu, his littlest one, to bedtime. “I’m not sleepy,” she whispers. “I want to look at my flower.”   

“I know, I know,” he says through tears in the dark. “But you just go to sleep, and then you can dream about it. And it’ll be a whole garden.” For all the melodrama and feel-good sweetness of It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s a story whose bell rings true precisely because it sees the cold cruelty of the world eye-to-eye and takes its blows right on the bloody lip. That contrast—a bit of grace and fellowship against life’s bleakest hardships—is the heart of American Blues Theater’s joyful 1940s radio broadcast rendition, now in its 21st year and the first in its gorgeous and fitting home at the Chopin.   

It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
Through 12/23: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; also Wed 12/21 7:30 PM and Fri 12/23 4:30 PM; Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 872-205-9681, americanbluestheater.com, $25-$55

Director Gwendolyn Whiteside’s production may run as smooth as a well-oiled machine, but there’s nothing rote about it. This year’s ensemble of returning veteran players, including Brandon Dahlquist (George), Audrey Billings (Mary), Manny Buckley (Joseph), Dara Cameron (Violet), Joe Dempsey (Clarence/Mr. Potter), and Ian Paul Custer (Harry) creates a wholly encompassing theater-of-the-mind, honoring the traditions of Wonderful Life’s well-trodden lines while making them their own. And the radio play format (featuring foley art by J.G. Smith) heightens the inherently nostalgic vibe of Christmas festivities, as does announcer and music director Michael Mahler’s crowd work and sing-along scoring at the piano. The mark of a worthwhile holiday show, I find, is whether or not it feels like a celebration. And by that metric, American Blues Theater has created and maintained one of the great Chicago Christmas traditions that welcomes its audience like family and overflows with holiday spirit.