The Christmas Schooner
Feel the love with this Chicago holiday heart warmer
|Mercury Theater Chicago presents|
|The Christmas Schooner|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
Imagine if there was no big tree in the Walnut Room, no holiday windows at
Marshall Field’s Macy’s, no official 100th Chicago Christmas Tree or German market in Daley Plaza, no twinkling feast of electrified branches on Michigan Avenue, even no Ebenezer haunting Goodman Theatre. We need these annual pleasures like a fix. Equally invaluable for our Yuletide joy, The Christmas Schooner has, within a generation, become a holiday addiction for the Windy City. It tells a tale that celebrates a homegrown Midwestern heroism and the desire of Chicagoans everywhere to return to their roots by importing a European tradition that says Christmas more than cash registers can ever chime.
The Christmas Schooner pays unforced tribute to the brave mariner-entrepreneurs who made Noel happen. The stirring show recounts the perils of the 19th century schooner captains and crews who endured the November gales of a sometimes savage Lake Michigan to bring our town its desperately needed Christmas trees (some 5,500 per boat). Captain Hermann Schuenemann, the model for Peter Stossel, would transport excess fir trees from Manistique in upper Michigan to our Clark Street Docks on the river, even giving away some “Tannenbaum” to the needy. His tale, standing in for many others, makes a vintage Chicago musical, celebrating light and warmth despite December’s cold dark.
It’s now on its third voyage at Lakeview’s Mercury Theater, which opened in 1912, the same year that Schuenemann’s “Rouse Simmons” schooner, called “The Christmas Tree Ship,” foundered. (The vessel was not discovered until 59 years later, lying beneath 170 feet of water).
This effortless heart-warmer, by John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon, depicts the hard-won success of a German-American family in the great North to transport Christmas trees to their Chicago cousin (and, happily, to many more citizens). This idea of a “second season on the water” was a venture dogged by uncertainty, both economic and meteorological. If the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer seem more metaphorical than frightening, the storms that stalk our inland Lake in this literal blast from the past are familiar fare. What empowers this show is how its sentiment is grounded in a real struggle to make folks happy, a theme that theater tackles better than most. Reeger’s clever dialogue and Shannon’s moving melodies are as well matched as tinsel on a tree.
Too specific to be sentimental, the musical only demands care and charm: Director L. Walter Stearns and his company of 25 actors and musicians prove true to its big heart. True to their bedrock characters, Karl Hamilton (sturdy and loving at the same time) and Cory Goodrich (recalling Shirley Jones in all her blithe beauty) are the stalwart Stossels: His captain courageously radiates authority and, in “When I Look at You,” sheer love, while this rich woman stands for so many wouldn’t-be widows who stared at the skies and feared for their men “What Is It About the Water?” As young Karl, Brennan Dougherty is a mischievous delight in “That’s What Loving Sons Are For.” Once again the irrepressible and ageless James Wilson Sherman plays the Teutonic grandpa with a guaranteed foxy twinkle.
Playing anyone from Michigan widows to corrupt Chicagoans, galumping to the “Winterfest Polka” or reefing sails to “Hardwater Sailors,” this chorus can do no (musical) wrong. When they pass an evergreen branch throughout the audience as a blessing for the season, you feel the love.
The Christmas Schooner continues through December 29th at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursday 2pm/7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm/8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $20-$55, and are available by phone (773-325-1700) or online at Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at MercuryTheaterChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with intermission)
Photos by Brett Beiner
Karl Hamilton (Peter Stossel), Cory Goodrich (Alma Stossel), James Wilson Sherman (Gustav Stossel), Kelly Anne Clark, Brennan Dougherty, Jaclyn Dougherty, Elizabeth Haley, Sage Harper, Christian Libonati, Leah Morrow, Michael Pacas, Eric Parker, Thom Shea, Travis Taylor, Sean Thomas (ensemble)
behind the scenes
L. Walter Stearns (director), Jacqueline and Richard Penrod (scenic design), Carol Blanchard (costume design), Jason Epperson (lighting design), Brenda Didier (choreography), Eugene Dizon (musical director), Brett Beiner (photos)