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Chicago by John Olson

The Christmas Schooner
Mercury Theater

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The Christmas Schooner
The Cast
Readers familiar with Chicago theater will know of this musical, which has been a local holiday tradition since its premiere at Bailiwick Repertory in 1995. It took me 13 holiday seasons in Chicago to get to it, with my interest piqued as much by it being the first show produced by the new team at the Mercury Theater as by curiosity over the piece itself. The new team at The Mercury includes Executive Director Walter Stearns and Business Manager Eugene Dizon, who led Porchlight Music Theatre for well over a decade and are stage and musical directors for this production. The two worked within Porchlight's confines of the black box spaces at Theatre Building Chicago (now Stage 773) and with an Equity development contract allowing one or two Equity performers per show. The Mercury—a former nickelodeon—is a traditional proscenium space, though one with a not-large stage, and this production has a nearly-all Equity cast and eight-piece orchestra. The medium-sized stage has been built into a larger playing area with the unit set built out over the pit. The onstage product suggests the desire and ability for this team to mount significant, Equity-caliber productions that can compete with those of the Equity houses out in the suburbs.

The Christmas Schooner, for those unfamiliar with it, is a fictionalized account of the late 19th/early 20th century events around the shipping of Christmas trees by two-masted schooners from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Chicago, where they were purchased by immigrants wanting to observe the German holiday tradition of decorating evergreen trees. These voyages were dangerous, given the always unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan, especially in early winter. The book by John Reeger condenses the action into some six years and creates a fictional family, the Stossels, based on the Scheuneman family who owned an actual schooner that sank in November 1912 while shipping trees to Chicago.

The setting allows for a variety of musical styles to be represented in the tuneful songs by Julie Shannon: sea ditties for the sailors (and yes, Lake Michigan can be very "sea-like" as anyone who's sailed on it will attest), German waltzes and polkas, and more traditional musical theater melodies. They're sung masterfully and accompanied beautifully under Dizon's musical direction. Karl Hamilton, who possesses a splendid baritone and an appealing everyman persona, is the entrepreneurial shipper and family head. Cory Goodrich, one of the area's top leading ladies, makes the most of her many solos while Jim Sherman both amuses and impresses with his comic skills and booming baritone as Hamilton's father. There's also a real pro-in-the-making with Mark Kosten, who plays Hamilton and Goodrich's son at age 15. He can belt out a tune and bounce around the stage like nobody's business, which he gets to do in a song called "Hardwater Sailors," detailing his (gentle) initiation onto the boat by the older sailors with some of Brenda Didier's athletic choreography. The production has even scored the marvelous Benjamin Magnuson, the Anthony of John Doyle's Sweeney Todd on Broadway and on tour, for a key supporting role as a sailor.

The unit set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod is all natural-looking wood and takes us into the Stossels' home as well as the docks and Chicago turn-of-the century streets. Like the wood of the set, any real conflict in the story has been sanded down and given a good-natured veneer. The mother, Alma, fears that the voyages will be too dangerous, but father Peter insists—and the value of his mission is soon proven when the ship first arrives in Chicago. She opposes future voyages as well, especially when son Karl turns 15 and insists on joining the crew. That voyage turns tragic—as did one by the real Christmas Schooner, the Rouse Simmons, in 1912, but the greater good of these voyages is quickly proven.

Even if Reeger's book lets the danger of the voyages be overpowered by holiday cheer—and Stearns's good natured presentational direction seems to acknowledge that we all know the story anyway —there are sentiments beneath the story told here that are not so facile. Peter Stossel explains to his family that good fortune—the success his business has achieved, for example—is a gift, must never be taken for granted, and may be accompanied by greater sacrifices at some other time. Good fortune and glad tidings must be passed on to others—a philosophy symbolized by the German custom of passing a branch of the evergreen tree, and captured in the song "The Blessings of the Branch." If taken seriously, it's a challenging message of generosity delivered in the package of this traditional holiday musical.

The Christmas Schooner will be performed at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago, through December 31, 2011. For tickets and information, contact the Mercury Theater at 773-325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.


Photo: Peter Coombs

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-- John Olson



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