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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

The Christmas Schooner docks in St. Paul

The Great American History Theatre has a family Christmas show that is in the act of becoming a seasonal habit. In its second year in St. Paul, Schooner's got what a Holiday Season musical needs. It carries a feel-good story that's just dark enough to be interesting, plus it has singing, dancing, a likeable little boy and a crew of hearty German immigrant characters. And the History Theatre's production generally succeeds.

Schooner revamps a detail of Lake Michigan history from the 1880. In the remote northern-shore town of Manistique, live the Stossels, a German immigrant family. Peter Stossel captains his own schooner, the refurbished Molly Doon. When his sister writes from distant Chicago, yearning for a "tannenbaum" like they had in Germany, Peter thins his woods of young trees and risks the ice-chunked, winter storm-prone Lake Michigan to bring Christmas trees to the German immigrants of Chicago.

John Reeger, who wrote the book for Schooner, captures the resilience of the immigrants and their struggle to both hold onto their German past and to step into their new American lives. His characters are strong, except for Stossel who needs more contrast to excite interest as a character. He's too nice and verges on the self-righteous. Boyish Josh Foldy does what he can with this white-bread role. He achieves moments of intimate desire with Alma Stossel, but they linger too long, and he lacks volume as a singer. It's a tough role to play, particularly in contrast to Fred Wagner's fully realized and witty Grandpa Stossel. Wagner wears his role as naturally as he wears the beard on his face.

Constant repartee zings back and forth between Grandpa Stossel and Peter's lively wife, Alma. Attractive Patty Nieman convinces as Alma, and she brings a strong set of pipes to her role. Two young actors switch off for the Stossel's nine-year-old son and, the night I watched, Ryan McCartan sang sweetly and found plenty of personality in Karl. The years pass and, in a delightful directorial touch, the young son fetches an armful of split logs and hands them over to an older boy, Steven Randall Schmeling, who takes over as an exuberant Karl at age 15.

Jan Puffer directs and choreographs Schooner's 14-member cast, who are superbly costumed in period dress by Pamela Kildahl. Puffer creates some eye-pleasing tableaux during songs, and particularly fine is the quilting scene, when the anxious women sew and worry about their men folk who are out on the lake in a violent storm. But the choreography for the dancing sometimes feels cramped in the limited space left on stage by the large presence of the ship.

A dramatic ramp juts out from the center of Erik Paulson's revolving set. The ramp serves well as a schooner, with a mast hoisted amid ships, and as a pier in Chicago, but as the rear wall of the Stossel family house, it's frankly awkward, and characters must constantly step over its tail end. Paulson's snow-covered evergreens create the sense of a Christmas card, and his back-lit cityscape conjures Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Synthesizer and bell-player Stephen Houtz plays composer Julie Shannon's melodic score onstage, and Schooner closes on her lovely song, "Blessings of the Branch," in which an evergreen branch is handed throughout the cast and then out into the audience. The Christmas Schooner runs through December 29. The Great American History Theatre, 30, East 10th St., St. Paul. $26-$29. For more information, call 651-292-4323 or email info@historytheatre.com


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Elizabeth Weir



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