Karl Hamilton gets to have a little bonus fun with this production, as his real-life wife, Elizabeth Haley, plays his cousin Martha, the Chicagoan whose letter sets the plot in motion. (I bet he repeats to himself before every performance, "Kiss her on the CHEEK, kiss her on the CHEEK!") She also shows off pretty awesome high notes. Actually, the ensemble numbers in this production , most particularly the opener, "We All Have Songs," all sound extremely good. Another highlight is the production sequence, "What Is It about the Water," well written, multi-faceted and creatively staged by director L. Walter Stearns and choreographer Brenda Didier.
There are a few songs in Shannon's score that don't seem as musically mature as one would hope, but that complaint fades during all the afore-mentioned numbers, as well as during the simple but effective "The Blessings of the Branch." And, though some of the theatrical moments are a little weak (some connecting material seems a bit vague and random) or forced (most of the jokes), I can tell you that the end of Act I, during the show's title song, there is a moment of theatrical brilliance that, when it works as it does here, more than makes up for any roughness or awkwardness in the script, score or staging. Those sailors, coming in to shore, see something that will get you in your gut, and in a very, very good way. I guarantee it. It's theatrical brilliance.
And what about those hardworking sailors? Role veterans Ronald Keaton (Oskar), Thomas M. Shea (Rudy) and Ryan Westwood (Hans) are joined by newcomers Eric Parker (Louie) and, most perfectly, Travis Taylor (Steve), the busy young singer-actor who's already played Lancelot in "Camelot" for Light Opera Works and The Beast in "Beauty and the Beast") and the Soldier in "Sunday in the Park with George" for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and all that in the last six months. "Schooner" is lucky to have him, and he to have it--hopefully for many more holiday seasons.
The rest of the cast, no less capable in their commitment to the material and their mastery of Richard and Jacqueline Penrod's massive, multi-faceted and wooden set, are the actresses Kelly Anne Clark and Leah Morrow and child actors Sage Harper, Daniel Pass and Isabel Roberts. Jason Epperson expertly lit the set and the actors with atmospheric, even meteorological, specificity, and the costumes of Carol Blanchard set time, place, temperature, social class and dramatic mood with clarity and panache. Mike Ross's sound design blended the sumptuous orchestral sounds with a cast that was literally all over the place, and painted an aural palette that was evocative and clear.
This is not a high budget production, and so the entire deck of the Molly Doone (as the schooner is called here) is not scrupulously recreated here. Nor is the Stossel's entire frontier Victorian home, though the second scene does give us a pretty successful holiday meal, with family and friends gathered around a bird, a table and a tree in thankful thought. The imagination is challenged, but that's not a bad thing. This family goes through highs and lows that most of us can only witness from a safe distance.
But whether or not you know that "The Christmas Tree Ship" was real, the story resonates. Generosity, even in giving to the ultimate level, is compelling and complex. There is heart-warmth, hearth-warmth and a kind of multi-century communion that emerges, even from the dark corners of this American immigrant story. There's enough meat to chew on, even for repeat viewings. And so, I recommend "The Christmas Schooner," and do so as a transplanted Chicagoan and a descendant of earlier immigrants than these. It's not my story, and yet it is. Let it become your story, too. We are all Chicagoans now.
THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER plays until December 30, 2012 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays; tickets range from $29 to $59. For tickets or more information, call 773-325-1700 or visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Coombs
PHOTOS (from top): Cory Goodrich and Karl Hamilton; the cast; Eric Parker, Ronald Keaton, Travis Taylor, Ryan Westwood and Thomas M. Shea holding Mark Kosten; Ronald Keaton, Karl Hamilton; James Wilson Sherman and Thomas M. Shea; Benjamin Parkhill and Travis Taylor.