Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn (Wendy) Whiteside interviewed the three actors who play “George Bailey” (past, present, and future) in Blues’ It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
[l to r – Ensemble members Jim Leaming, Kevin Kelly, and Artistic Affiliate Zach Kenney; photo by Johnny Knight.]
WENDY: What was your biggest fear playing the iconic George Bailey?
JIM: Capra serves a parable of hope for the good person; it’s scary to be honored with the telling. Being true to the spirit of the character and serving the story and not allowing myself to be overwhelmed or distracted by a desire to “be worthy” of the icon. This is a love story. We change the world where we touch it.
KEVIN: Living up to everyone’s expectations. For years and generations people have an image and a voice associated with that character. How do I make it my own with a flavor of what they also expect?
ZACH: I didn’t grow up with It’s a Wonderful Life. It wasn’t a part of my personal holiday ritual. Being a part of the show, however, has given me a chance to enjoy this story and be a part of a favorite Christmas tradition to so many. It is an iconic piece of Americana, and there is no more worthy Christmas message that the one at the heart of this story. American Blues’ production invites a sense of community, gratitude, faith, and hope in the face of life’s struggles.
Jim and Kevin have left quite a legacy in sharing this story with so many Chicago families. More than fear of “getting it wrong,” I am simply hoping upon hope that I’ll be able to fit into audiences’ well-formed holiday tradition. It’s certainly become a favorite aspect of my own.
WENDY: What is your favorite moment or line from the production?
JIM: The line – “That’s a Christmas present from a very dear friend of mine.”
KEVIN: There are so many – Zuzu’s petals scene stands out for me. The innocence of Zuzu’s world combined with the catastrophic world that George is living at that moment – it’s wonderful and complex. I also like the line “Well you look like the kind of angel I’d get…” Poor George.
ZACH: My favorite moment in It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is the “Soldier Spotlight”. While most of these folks probably prefer to stay out of the limelight, I think it’s incredibly important that we celebrate their service to our country. Military service is woven into the fabric of the story. So it’s only fitting that we hold a moment to pause and reflect on what that means–in a personal way. When we recall the stories and honor their service, we recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to thank them for everything they have done for us. At the holidays, I think this is an especially important time to thank the men and women who have served our country.
WENDY: Between Jim and Kevin, you’ve both played “George Bailey” for 12 years on our stage. What advice do you have for Zach?
JIM: Have fun. Open your heart and jump in.
KEVIN: Make it your own while honoring the George Bailey that the audience expects. Keep it pure, innocent, and real every moment every night because there is a little bit of George in all of us and many who need this story that night. Don’t let them down.
WENDY: Both Kevin and Zach followed another actor in our holiday tradition. What did you admire about those performances?
KEVIN: I thought I could never fill the great shoes that Jim created. His strength and talent abounded, and he was a tough act to follow.
ZACH: Kevin is just brilliant as George Bailey. First, he is an incredibly gifted actor. He puts the story to the forefront and lets the message of the play shine. His incredible vocal variety and ability to shape the text allows us to see the town of Bedford Falls right along with him, and ride the highs and lows of the show. Kevin’s ability to paint a portrait of George’s entire life leaves us breathless. His inherent generosity of spirit and sense of family serves the play so much, and imbues the show with so much heart.
WENDY: Nearly 50,000 patrons have experienced our It’s a Wonderful Life since 2002, what’s your favorite audience tradition?
JIM: The pre-show! We casually get to know each other and generate the feeling that we are going to share this ride. And then cookies and milk (and nog-like beverages) after to celebrate the sharing. No other show I’ve done has such an immediate and living connection with the audience.
ZACH: From the holiday jingles, to singing carols, to sending fellow audience-members special messages…and of course, milk and cookies–this show is packed with one-of-a-kind treats to surprise our friends “in the studio” and allow them to continue making memories year after year.
KEVIN: I’m always blown away when patrons say they love our show more than the movie. I’m so honored they feel that way. We work hard every night to create this wonderful world and their appreciation means more than words!