REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

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American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

american blues theatre logo 

announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

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Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

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   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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Olympia Dukakis reads for American Blues

By Leah A. Zeldes

Olympia-Dukakis Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis appears in Chicago Monday, Nov. 16, to read from an upcoming American Blues Theater production. The reading, a passage from ABT’s spring 2010 show, "RIPPED: The Living Newspaper Project" by Eduardo Machado and Rick Cleveland, takes place during a benefit for the newly-reconstituted troupe. Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, will also read.

Highlights of benefit, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Bridgeview Bank, 4753 N. Broadway, also include live blues by Chicago band The Skirts, an auction of such items as local theater tickets and a walk-on Broadway role, food and drinks. Tickets are $75, $125 for VIP admission, which includes an earlier reception with Dukakis.

Dukakis, whose film credits include Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Moonstruck, for which she was named Best Supporting Actress, is a long-time friend of ABT ensemble member Carmen Roman. "I’ve watched this company continuously produce incredible, groundbreaking work," Dukakis said. "The 2009/10 season is no exception. I’m honored to be a part of their benefit celebration, and fully support this inspirational Chicago ensemble."

"Starting from scratch without staff and absolutely no money has certainly been a challenge," said ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside, part of the company’s executive/artistic/administrator triumvirate, along with Roman and Heather Meyers.

In March, 23 members of the ensemble left American Theater Company, leaving behind a $1 million annual budget and taking back the American Blues name under which that company formed in 1985. The group, which comprised most of ATC’s actors, departed over differences with its artistic director, P.J. Paparelli, who was hired two years ago from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Paparelli had reportedly expelled several members of the company and allowed members increasingly less influence on theatrical decision making.

American Blues Theater members include Cleveland, Dawn Bach, Ed Blatchford, Matthew Brumlow, Kate Buddeke, Casey Campbell, Dennis Cockrum, Lauri Dahl, Tom Geraty, Cheryl Graeff, Lindsay Jones, Kevin R. Kelly, Ed Kross, James Leaming, John Mohrlein, Jim Ortlieb, William Payne, Suzanne Petri, Tania Richard, Editha Rosario, John Sterchi and Stef Tovar.

"I believe the work of the ABT ensemble is vital and important to Chicago’s theater community and our city as a whole," Zacek said.

Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Animal Crackers”

 Ludicrous yet loveable, “Animal Crackers” is rollicking good time

(clockwise from top) Ora Jones (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Ed Kross (Horatio Jamison/Zeppo), Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho), Molly Brennan (The Professor/Harpo) and Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli/Chico).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit

Goodman Theatre presents

Animal Crackers

Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Now extended thru November 1st (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

 (l to r) Mara Davi (Mrs. Whitehead) and Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit It’s pretty rare that a stage production can be described as both “brilliant” and “stupid.” Theatre quite often views itself as an intellectual pursuit (or at least it would like to), leaving the silly, ridiculous, and trivial to blockbuster movies. The Goodman’s mounting of the Marx Brother’s classic musical Animal Crackers, though, seems to be going for that idiocy much of today’s theatre is afraid to touch. It succeeds beautifully. With an intensely committed cast and under the energized direction of Henry Wishcamper, Animal Crackers is remarkably, refreshingly stupid.

A few coincidences also help make Animal Crackers oddly connected to our current world. First, the musical is premiering against Fake Steppenwolf Theatre’s current show exploring the history of the “Piltdown Man,” a hoax that claimed to be the missing link between man and ape. And both of these shows now have an interesting new relevance with last week’s announcement concerning the discovery of the oldest known human ancestor, “Ardi.” Now Animal Crackers doesn’t trouble  itself with Darwin, biology, or the scientific method; instead, it lambastes the scientific community and high society with a keen sense of farce that could only come Production_06from the Marx Brothers. There is a silent The Professor (Molly Brennan in the role created by Harpo), whose subject of study is never revealed, besides his penchant for chasing every woman in the room. Then there is the wise-cracking African explorer Captain Spaulding (Joey Slotnick with Groucho’s signature mustache and cigar), who claims that his retirement would be his greatest contribution to science. Along with the scheming musician Emanuel Ravelli (Jonathan Brody in Chico’s role), the group wrecks havoc among a group of painters, newspaper columnists, debutants, art collectors, and a few lovers. The musical wasn’t produced for over 50 years after the Marx Brothers’ Broadway original and is still a very rare sight for theatre audiences. Wishcamper’s revival proves that Animal Crackers still has spirit, even though the last Marx Brother died 30 years ago.

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The big question I had was if Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody would just be doing a simple imitation or inventing the characters anew. The end result is a hefty portion of both. Harpo, Groucho, and Chico are reproduced on stage, but the performers find plenty of new material within the script. At one point, Spaulding performs a Production_11sarcastic homage to last season’s O’Neill festival. At another point, The Professor whips out a rifle from his coat and shoots wildly at the orchestra and the ceiling, causing several plush ducks to fall onto the stage. Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody never miss a comic beat, and they will not hesitate to chastise the audience if there’s not enough laughter (“The Addam’s Family isn’t in town till November”). The work of clowning director Paul Kalina is very clear. There are hilarious comic bits with hats, playing cards, tables, stuff shoved into The Professor’s jacket, paintings, ladders, the list goes on and on.

  Production_03Wishcamper cast all of the parts with only nine actors, which swells the madness of the script to another level. The lovers, devious debutants, and other members of high society that are constantly insulted and/or hit on by Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody are all tightly performed. However, the play’s plot, which serves as more of a frame for the Marxs’ antics than a real storyline, becomes a bit tiring by the second act. Shaving the run time down would definitely help the show pop a bit more.

Wishcamper and his cast confirm that Animal Crackers can be much more than just a device for the original performers. With their spirited vitality, they thoroughly push the musical’s farce, ridiculousness, and, yes, even its stupidity.

Rating: «««

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