Chicago’s own holiday musical is still a winner
|Mercury Theater Chicago presents|
|The Christmas Schooner|
Review by John Olson
Now in its 21st year since premiering at the former Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, The Christmas Schooner must certainly be, after the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol, Chicago’s most durable holiday show. It is, though, the most home-grown Chicago holiday show, with its subject being the story of the arrival of the first Christmas trees to Chicago in 1906. The story concerns an immigrant German family in the Michigan Upper Peninsula town of Manistique who start to ship evergreens down to Chicago after hearing from a Chicago cousin who laments the lack of such trees. The young father of the Michigan family is Peter Stossel (Stef Tovar), who pilots a shipping schooner. He’s equipped to ship the trees that are so abundant up north to the growing city on the Illinois prairie, but late November/early December is a dangerous time to be sailing on Lake Michigan. Remember that line from “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” — “when the gales of November came early”? That sort of thing. So initially, the dramatic tension is as much about whether the trees will sell as about whether the crew will arrive and return home to Michigan safely. As the first act closes, we see that the trees have become an instant sensation in Chicago. The second act picks up 6 years later, after several seasons of booming tree shipping, and the gales of November become a greater threat the consumer preferences of early 20th Century Chicagoans.
Like so many traditional holiday entertainments, The Christmas Schooner celebrates family and virtues such as generosity and selflessness. It’s to the credit of writers John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon, as well as the warm, steady direction of L Walter Stearns that this all feels genuine and never syrupy. Shannon’s folk-influenced score is a delight, and is performed here by as fine a vocal ensemble as one will find anywhere in Chicago. Much of the score is choral music and it’s given a gorgeous reading by this cast, under Eugene Dizon’s direction. So far as the leads go, Brianna Borger is a standout as mother Alma. Her singing is gorgeous, and she creates a character that, while within the traditions of the “strong pioneer woman,” never descends to stereotype. One of the city’s top leading men, Stef Tovar, has taken on the lead role of Peter and Tovar’s winning persona and solid singing keep us on Peter’s side throughout the piece. There’s also winning work from Don Forston as the family patriarch, landing gentle laughs at the expense of the recent immigrant’s tendency to be a mild troublemaker.
The attractive unit set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod uses rough-hewn wood to suggest both the rural Manistique setting as well as the ship. It’s a large set, built out over the apron of the Mercury Theater’s stage and its multi-levels serve well the setting on board the ship as well as in the Stossel home. One wonders, though, what The Christmas Schooner might look like in a production that would have the space and budget to show downtown Chicago in this era. It’s possible it might suffer if made any bigger. As done here, it’s a perfect mid-size production – offering strong visual design and a good sized cast, while still retaining the intimacy of this gentle story.
The Christmas Schooner continues through December 31st at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Wednesdays 8pm, Thursdays 3pm & 8pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm & 8pm, Sundays 3pm – with additional holiday performances near the holidays. Tickets are $30-$69, 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 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Brett Beiner
Stef Tovar (Peter Stossel), Brianna Borger (Alma Stossel), Don Forston (Gustav Stossel), Peyton Owen (Karl Stossel, age 9), Christian Libonati (Young Man, Karl Stossel age 15), Daniel Smeriglio (Rudy), Brian Elliott (Oskar), James Rank (Steve), Michael Pacas (Hans, Officer Wells), Dan Gold (Louis), Kelly Anne Clark (Enid), Cory Goodrich (Martha, Kate), Leah Morrow (Olive, Rose), Tova Love Kaplan (Young Girl, Mary Claire Daugherty age 10), Autumn Hlava (Lili Mae).
behind the scenes
L. Walter Stearns (director), Eugene Dizon (musical director), Brenda Didier (choreographer), Jacqueline and Richard Penrod (scenic design), Carol J. Blanchard (costume design), Jason Epperson (lighting design), Mike Ross (sound design), Rita Vreeland (production stage manager), Larry Blank (orchestrations), Rachel Boylan (wardrobe supervisor), Carl Wahlstrom (sound board operator), Andrew Waters (production assistant), Brett Beiner (photos)