Playwright: Various, based on the Frank Capra film
At: Porchlight Music Theatre; American Theatre Company
Phone: Porchlight, 773-327-5252; $30-$32; American Theatre Company, 773-929-1031; $40
Runs through: Dec. 31 ( both shows )
The astonishingly great director Frank Capra may have understood America better than anyone. In film after film, he pitted the bedrock decency and independence of an individual American against the homogeneity of the body politic and its tendency to favor paternalistic authority, often in the service of ambition or greed. No saint, the Capra hero is a flawed man stretched to the end of his tether. John Doe and George Bailey come close to suicide. We identify with their demons because they verbalize things we think but won't utter, which makes their ultimate triumphs—bordering on redemptions—so heart-filling and unashamedly tear-jerking.Read more story below....
It's a Wonderful Life, Capra's 1946 film about Everyman George Bailey, has become a holiday classic, although the major Oscars passed it by when it was new. ( It wasn't even nominated in most categories. ) Only in the 1980s did audiences re-discover it with a new appreciation. In Chicago this holiday season, there are two stage versions of It's a Wonderful Life, a musical and a radio play. Both are successful in the sense that George Bailey's story remains appealing and indestructible, and the democratic values promoted by Capra ( and screenplay author Joe Landry ) remain intact. However, the stage ain't the movies. The radio version runs only 90 minutes, while the musical cuts film material to make room for the songs. Curiously, both renditions eliminate the same scenes: those showing George as a boy saving his younger brother from drowning, saving Mr. Gower from prison, etc. What must be retained from these scenes is related in expository dialogue.
A Wonderful Life failed as a Broadway musical because there's no compelling reason to musicalize the film and, besides, the score isn't memorable. Still, for this Chicago premiere, Porchlight Music Theatre does its customary first-rate job. Director L. Walter Stearns and choreographer Matt Raftery retain the story's heart and soul, with David Heimann passionately strong as George, Jess Godwin sweetly moving as Mary and Peter Pohlhammer as a towering Mr. Potter with a villain's basso voice. Musical director Eugene Dizon, his large cast and four-person orchestra squeeze all possible distinction from the score, but there isn't much to be had.
At American Theatre Company, this is year five for It's a Wonderful Life, done as a 1940s live radio broadcast, complete with singing commercials ( for actual local businesses ) and live sound effects artist John Sterchi. The approach is novel, and the 90-minute condensation neatly focuses the story. The audience has great fun watching actors take multiple roles, among them veteran John Mohrlein, doubling as guardian angel Clarence and nasty Mr. Potter. James Leaming, who exudes decency, once again is George Bailey.
Same story, but each show is its own animal. Why not see both? As Ernie Banks used to say, 'Let's play two.'