Tuesday May 23rd 2017

“The Christmas Schooner” reviewed by Carol Moore and by Al Bresloff


schoonerlogoHighly Recommended ***** While I was expecting to only offer Carole’s fine review and some notes, tonight, after attending the show again, I realize just how this script affects me. I have shed a tear every year as the wonder of this true Chicago story unfolds. While the venue has changed over the years, and of course, the cast as well, it is the story that is key to this legendary saga being told. The book by John Reeger is deep, moving, funny and warm-hearted. Julie Shannon’s music and lyrics are amazingly beautiful. She is missed, but because of this work of art, will remain with us for years to come.

Since L. Walter Stearns has taken this show on as the Mercury Theater’s own, he has brought his warmth and caring into the picture and along with Eugene Dizon (musical director) and the marvelous choreography of Brenda Didier, uses the stage (set by Jaqueline and Richard Penrod) to perfection. While this is a story about individuals, it is really a story about a community. The Stossel Family is the center of interest as it is the Schooner owned and operated by Peter ( Stef Tovar has truly grown into this part, aging, like a fine wine from one year to the next), his loving wife, Alma (the enchanting Brianna Borger), their son, Karl (played as a nine year old by the adorable Peyton Owen and later Christian Libonati at 15) and his father, Gustav (deftly handled by James Wilson Sherman, who it seems has been playing this role forever- but no one could do a better job!).Mercury Christmas Schooner - Peyton Owen (Karl), James Sherman (Gustav)

The ensemble is solid; Daniel Smeriglio, Matthew W. Miles, James Rank, Michael Paca, Eric Parker, Kelly Anne Clark, Elizabeth Lanza, Leah Morrow, Tova Love Kaplan and Autumn Hlava. Stearns has these people playing many roles and filling the stage as if the cast was triple the size. Nice job! The musicians are also small in numbers but huge in productivity. Under Dizon’s leadership, Melissa Arbetter (violin), Anthony Rodriguez (woodwinds), Jennifer Ruggieri (harp), David Sands (cello) and Lindsay Williams (percussion) bring Ms Shannon’s music to a higher level. I love this show! I guess the only thing I can ask is that they end the show with a little longer “The Blessing of the Branch” reprise. This is a time to touch the hearts of all of us, so why not pass several branches through the audience. I would love to see the reaction if several cast members went into the audience and passed them through the seats. I would venture to say, Kleenex tissues at the exits would truly come in handy!

“The Christmas Schooner” will continue thru 12/27 so do not delay in getting your tickets.                                                                                  Performances are  Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

Mercury Christmas Schooner - Men of The Christmas Schooner                                                                                                                                                                                                       Thursdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Fridays at 8 p.m.

Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.

Sundays at 3 p.m.

Others are available over the holidays. Visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com where you can purchase tickets as well. You can also call 773-325-1700. Tickets range from $25- $69.00

The theater is located in the heart of Wrigleyville at 3745 N. Southport and valet parking is available.Mercury Christmas Schooner - Brianna Borger (Alma) Tova Love Kaplan (Mary Claire) (1)By Carol Moore

Highly Recommended **** Chicago’s own bittersweet holiday musical, “The Christmas Schooner” has returned to the Mercury Theatre.  No matter how many times I see “Schooner”, it still moves me to tears!  You won’t want to miss Chicago’s own holiday play, it is truly special!   An absolute must-see, I give “A Christmas Schooner” 4 Spotlights.

Late in the nineteenth century, brave sailors risked life and limb on the icy waters of Lake Michigan in November to bring Christmas trees to German immigrants living in Chicago.  John Reeger and Julie Shannon pay tribute to their heroic stories in “The Christmas Schooner”.

Captain Peter Stossel (Stef Tovar) has a good life and thriving business in Manistique, Michigan.  He lives with his wife, Alma (Brianna Borger), his 9 year-old son Karl (Peyton Owen), and his father, Gustav (James Wilson Sherman).  The Stossels honor a lovely German tradition at Christmas dinner when Alma passes a branch of fir to family and friends at the table, while singing a song called “The Blessings of the Branch.”  At the end of each performance, the cast shares that touching tradition with the audience.

One Christmas, Peter received a letter from his cousin Martha (Elizabeth Lanza) telling him of her yearning for a Christmas tree, a part of their German tradition.  Since his land is covered with fir trees which need to be thinned out, he decides he could harvest some trees and sell them in Chicago.

The following November, over Alma’s protests, Captain Stossel, his father Gustav and a small crew – Rudy (Daniel Smeriglio), Oskar (Matthew W. Miles), and Steve (James Rank) – sailed down the lake toward Chicago with a load of trees, not knowing if they’d sell any of them.  When the schooner arrived at the Clark Street dock, they were surprised to find a huge crowd waiting for them.  They sold all the trees in just one day.

Captain Stossel continued bringing Christmas trees to Chicago until the year his son Karl (Christian Libonti) turned 15.  That year, Gustav broke his arm, so over Alma’s objections, Karl joined the crew.  In a terrible winter storm, Captain Stossel held the wheel until the crew got into the lifeboat, but lost his life.  After the trees floated to shore, they were loaded onto another ship, which took them on to Chicago.


Sailing ships continued to bring Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago for many years.  More recently, Coast Guard ships continue to bring Christmas trees for people who can’t afford to buy one,

Kelly Anne Clark, Elizabeth Lanza and Leah Morrow are a kind of Greek chorus.  In addition, the ladies join Michael Pacas, Eric Parker, Christian Libonati, Tova Love Kaplan and Autumn Hlava as mummers, friends, neighbors, and the people of Chicago.

Chicago’s own Christmas story, “The Christmas Schooner” had a 12 year run at the old Bailiwick Theatre, as well as a 2009 production at Theatre at the Center.  This is Mercury Theatre’s fifth production; Jim Sherman has appeared in all of them.

By the way, playwright John Reeger has a new musical whodunit, “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes” opening January 20th, also at the Mercury.

“The Christmas Schooner” runs through December 27th at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (in the heart of Wrigleyville), Chicago.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30 pm; Thursdays at 3:00 and 7:30; Fridays at 8:00; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00; and Sundays at 3:00 and 7:30.  Valet parking is available.  Tickets range from $25-$65.  Call (773) 325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “The Christmas Schooner”

Mercury Christmas Schooner - Cast of The Christmas Schooner

Editor’s note:

This has become one of my favorite Holiday plays. While I enjoy the oldies, the standards and even the movies converted to plays, this is an original work, written by local talents and dealing with local history. That makes it more meaningful to me, at least. Many of you might know that for over 40 years (thanks to the generosity of Fantasy Costumes and my good friend George) I have been a Chicago area Santa, myself. Bringing cheer to those who might otherwise not have a holiday at all. Each year, on Christmas Day, you can find me along with my many “helpers” at St. James Church on the South Side, feeding the homeless and giving them gifts. These are people who have no family to go to, but have formed, through this marvelous church (one that faced elimination itself years ago) an extended family. I see many of the same people each year and know that the smiles they have on this day have replaced the tears of sorrow and unhappiness. At least for a week or so, I know they will have a nice time to recall, a solid meal prepared by a wonderful chef, Dave Sambor, food packets to take with them and of course some gifts. Of greater importance is the high spirit we bring them. Sort of like the trees that were brought to Chicago in the schooner.

This is a time to reflect! A time to think about others and in this play, about our city and history it is nice to know that caring still exists. May you all have the best of holiday seasons! May your family be as healthy as one can hope for! May you all hold the spirit that is in the air- for now and evermore!

santaAlan Bresloff


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