BWW Reviews: THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER: A Holiday Tradition That Is About--Well, Tradition!
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by Paul W. Thompson
I believe that "The Christmas Schooner" has been performed in the Chicago area every year, except for one, since 1995. And yet, I know for a fact that new theatergoers are discovering it all the time. Hence, it's a good thing that the Mercury Theater on Southport Avenue has mounted this story--based on a real slice of Chicago history--for the second year, and has already announced it for next year as well. It's one of the most popular musicals across the country to originate in Chicago, and we are proud to call it our own. And it struck me this year that this show, wearing as it does its heart on its 19th century sleeve, is becoming a part of our collective holiday tradition, much as the tannenbaum, the Christmas tree, was a tradition for the German immigrants the show depicts (and who many Chicagoans count as ancestors). A show about tradition becoming a tradition itself! How very appropriate--and how very wise to remount.
This full-length musical, the work of Chicago actor and writer John Reeger (book) and the late Julie Shannon (music and lyrics), has other themes as well--the importance of family, the strong ties of community, the importance of keeping difficult promises, and of loving someone despite not entirely understanding what makes them tick. But for me, the importance of remembering who you are, and transmitting the essence of that to your friends and to the next generation, stands out the most in this 2012 production.
The German and Swiss Stossel family, living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, struggles to balance its new life in America with its old-world origins, even as it struggles with the harsh winters and even harsher Lake Michigan water, wind and waves. Peter Stossel is a ship captain, you see, and his love for the Christmas trees of his childhood in Bremen joins with his chosen profession to set a course for triumph, tragedy and transcendence.
This story is based on the real life ship, the Rouse Simmons, which delivered freshly-cut Christmas trees from the U. P. to the Clark Street Docks for three decades, until it sank, tragically and fully loaded, on November 23, 1912--one hundred years ago last week. The story doesn't exactly play out the same way in the show, which may be a smart move on the authors' part, to maintain suspense when there wouldn't be as much if history were scrupulously followed. The Captain who went down with the real ship was Herman Schuenemann, and the differences only start there. But the story ends the same way, with a vow to carry on with tradition. A young Irish immigrant spurs the understanding of the universality of what the German immigrants were trying to do.
Many of the actors in this production have played their roles before, and they do indeed become more complex, deeper performances as time goes by. Captain Peter Stossel's wife, Alma, is played by the luminous Cory Goodrich, the headstrong, modern woman who romances her husband, raises their son and tames her father-in-law, all the while cooking dinner and never losing the perfection of her hairdo. Her singing during her all-too-brief Act II solo, "Questions," is superb. And the song is one of the strengths of the score (interpreted and accompanied here by musical director Eugene Dizon and an atmospheric seven-piece orchestra--orchestrations by Larry Blank).
The men in her life are portrayed first and foremost by role veteran Karl Hamilton as Peter (he sounds better than ever on his solo, "When I Look at You," and is always a lovable and compassionate leader). Peter's father, Gustav, is played by role veteran James Wilson Sherman (Jim to everybody), who is a little hard to understand when he switches around from German to English, but whose gravitas and grit are unmistakable. Her son, Karl, is played by the young actor Benjamin Parkhill, who's 12 years old but whose acting resume is longer than most; and when Karl turns 15, he is played by the very busy young adult actor Mark Kosten. Parkhill and Kosten make the most of their big numbers (the lighthearted "Loving Sons" and "Hardwater Sailors," respectively), and Kosten even stood out in the Act I ensemble numbers, so incandescent is his talent.
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.