The Christmas Schooner
Book by John Reeger
An essential part of Christmas in Chicago
|Mercury Theater presents|
|The Christmas Schooner|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
Nineteen years after its advent, this show has become as essential to a Chicago Christmas as the lights on the Magnificent Mile, the parade on State Street, or the skating rink in Millennium Park. But it’s especially crucial when it comes to the central symbol of the season: Imagine no Big Tree in the Walnut Room, no official one in Daley Plaza, no twinkling arbors on Michigan Avenue. No, it’s too terrible to contemplate. Likewise Chicago without this show in this month.
The Christmas Schooner pays unforced tribute to the heroic entrepreneurs who made those trees happen, the 19th century schooner captains and crews who braved the November gales of a treacherous Lake Michigan to bring Chicago desperately needed Christmas trees—living mementos of the “Tannenbaum” they’d known in Germany. It’s a vintage Chicago musical, celebrating light and warmth despite December’s cold dark.
Formerly a 1995 Bailiwick Repertory triumph that, evolving into a treasured tradition, was regularly repeated each holiday season for more than a decade, The Christmas Schooner has since played Munster’s Theatre at the Center. Now for the fourth time it embarks at the Mercury Theater, virtually intact since 2011’s recent inception. John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon’s effortless heartwarmer depicts the hard-won success of a German-American family in upper Michigan to transport excess fir, spruce and pine trees to their Chicago cousins, a venture dogged by uncertainty, both economic and meteorological. If the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer seem more metaphorical than frightening, the November gales and Chicago streets in this blast from the past are very familiar fare.
Rooted in a very real family, the plot draws strength from its fascinating details of Great Lakes sailing, including the disgusting slumgullion stew, the Mummers who’d visit on Christmas Eve, a “Winterfest” carnival in Chicago, clog dancing and a “strudel waltz.” Reeger’s script solidly recreates a world that was uncertainly bridging Old World traditions and New World accommodations. Shannon’s score, which effortlessly moves from German hymns and favorite carols to period polkas, stomp dances and pop anthems (wonderfully choreographed by Brenda Didier), perfectly complements the real-life tale of Captain Peter Stossel. Inspired by a letter from his sister in Chicago, Stossel hit on a new–and very old–use for fir trees of the Upper Peninsula: They would become tannenbaum for Chicago’s huge German population–and soon for the entire city. An unexpected crowd of 500 welcomed the schooner “Molly Doone” at the Clark Street dock. Even more unexpectedly, like instant traditions, Christmas trees were instantly adopted by all ethnic groups, making memories that fed on themselves and kept the trees coming.
Too specific to be sentimental, the musical only demands care and charm: Director L. Walter Stearns is true to its big heart, with music director Eugene Dizon all but marinating in Shannon’s lovely melodies. Brianna Borger and Stef Tovar (who have settled into the roles very comfortably indeed) are the stalwart helpmates Alma and Peter Stossel: Impish but always dignified, tough and tender, Peter’s “captain courageous” radiates authority and, in “When I Look at You,” sheer love, while this richly drawn wife and mother, who can beam in her dreams, stands for so many wouldn’t-be widows who stared at the skies and feared for their men. As young Karl, William Anderson is a mischievous delight in “That’s What Loving Sons Are For” and, as teenage Karl, Brian Bohr bumptiously celebrates his love for the lake with the crew in “Hardwater Sailors.” The crews were their own exclusive nautical community, here happily integrated when Alma finally joins the team.
Another “Schooner” veteran, James Wilson Sherman plays the Teutonic grandpa with a guaranteed foxy twinkle. By now he can do this role in his sleep, waxing serious and waning comic and never missing a joke or anecdote (of which there are plenty). Playing anyone from hungry peasants to corrupt Chicagoans, this chorus can do no (musical) wrong, bestowing the blessings of a Christmas branch to the audience or contemplating the Great Lakes’ greater dangers and appeal in “What Is It About The Water.”
Chicago has long deserved and, for almost two decades now, has thoroughly enjoyed its own Christmas musical, a characteristically commercial celebration of entrepreneurial and meteorological risk-taking. A show about our slaughterhouses wouldn’t have delivered the right holiday cheer–but The Christmas Schooner reflects our surprisingly sentimental, hardscrabble, tough-loving town at its well-earned best.
The Christmas Schooner continues through December 28th at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays 3pm and 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $25-$65, and are available by phone (773-325-1700) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MercuryTheaterChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, includes an intermission)
Stef Tovar (Peter Stossel), Brianna Borger (Alma Stossel), James Wilson Sherman (Gustav Stossel), William Anderson (Karl, Age 9), Brian Bohr (Karl at 15, Young Man), Kelly Anne Clark (Martha), Jaclyn Dougherty (Mary Claire), Elizabeth Lanza (Enid), Leah Morrow (Olive, Rose), Michael Pacas (Hans), Eric Parker (Louis), James Rank (Steve), Daniel Smeriglio (Rudy), Sean Thomas (Oskar), Brennan Dougherty (Karl Jr. understudy)
Eugene Dizon (piano, conductor), Melissa Arbetter (violin), Hunter Diamons (woodwinds), Jennifer Ruggieri (harp), David Sands (cello), Lindsay Williams (percussion)
behind the scenes
L. Walter Stearns (director), Jacqueline and Richard Penrod (scenic design), Carol J. Blanchard (costume design), Jason Epperson (lighting design), Eugene Dizon (music director), Brenda Didier (choreography), Mike Ross (sound design), Larry Blank (orchestrations), Rita Vreeland (stage manager), Andrew Waters (asst. choreographer), Jason Shivers (stage crew), Jason Shivers (production assistant), Crosstown Scenic (set construction), Leah Morrow (dance captain), Joseph Schofield (sound board operator), Rachel Boylan (wardrobe, wig maintenance), Kevin Bartel (wig/hair design), Katie-Sarah Phillips (child supervision), Sophia Aynne Briones (properties), Drew Dir, Nadine Heidiger (graphic designers), John Kevin Films (film production), Brett Beiner, Michael Brosilow (photos)