Thursday September 21st 2017

“The Christmas Schooner” reviewed by Jacob Davis

schooner1Highly Recommended ****

Another Christmas season in Chicago means the return of beloved theatre traditions, and that includes local treasure The Christmas Schooner, a musical by John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon. Since last year, the last musical Shannon worked on with Reeger and Michael Mahler, The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes, debuted at Mercury Theater Chicago to great critical and audience acclaim. The actor who played the role of Gustav, Jim Sherman, passed away. New cast members have joined the Schooner, and the Christmas play that holds a special place in the hearts of the Chicago theatre community members remains as solid and full of heart as ever.

The Christmas Schooner is a fictionalized telling of the first ship that delivered Christmas trees to Chicago’s German immigrant community in the late nineteenth century. Stef Tovar plays Peter Stossel, the captain and owner of the Molly Doon, which he ferries between Chicago and his home in Manistique in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Peter is a successful businessman and a living example of the American Dream: his father, Gustav (now played by the worthy Don Forston) is a German immigrant, his wife, Alma (Brianna Borger), is a Swiss immigrant, and their son, Karl (Peyton Owen as a 9-year-old, Christian Libonati at 15) is American. Gustav has taught Karl to speak German, which Alma rather dislikes—she considers it emblematic of the Old World ways they left behind. Gustav, a more conservative sort, dismisses her because, being Swiss, she was already used to living in a multicultural society, and therefore he accuses her of lacking a healthy sense of self. Peter doesn’t involve himself much in this dispute until he gets a letter from a relative in Chicago lamenting that the Germans there have missed out on the traditional Tannenbaum for years. Realizing he had been taking his own Tannenbaum (which Alma had no objection to) for granted, Peter schemes to make a dangerous winter run across Lake Michigan to deliver trees to all Chicago’s Germans. After his initial success, he keeps making the run until meeting inevitable disaster.

Besides being the annual Christmas show which is entirely a Chicago creation, The Christmas Schooner is also the show which is most specifically Christian and the most specifically American. Both the show’s opening number “We All Have Songs” and the second song with the full company, “The Blessing of the Branch” are about the passing of fortune from person to person. (Interestingly, Shannon invented the fir branch passing ceremony depicted in the play as a timeless German tradition.) Gustav tells Karl that the Tannenbaum was bequeathed by a manifestation of Christ, and The Christmas Schooner is largely the story of how the Christmas tree was Americanized into the all-inclusive symbol of winter fellowship we know today.

Shannon’s music is simple enough for just four musicians, but is well-suited to the melodic piano, clarinet, and harp combo. While none of the songs demand vocal flashiness, the singing actors are all successful at conveying their emotional content. Particularly haunting is “What is it about the Water?” in which Peter Stossel broods over how even for a skilled sailor the winter runs are extremely difficult, and Alma throws herself into her work because nagging can’t sustain the illusion that she has any real power to stop her husband from self-destructing.schooner2

Although The Christmas Schooner’s strength comes from its willingness to explore grim subject matter, it also has a lot of humor, and director L. Walter Stearns’s staging always maintains a sense of fellowship among the cast. The show is hopeful, but not glib. Many of the audience members at opening were people who attend annually or just about annually, and it’s a good bet that that will be true throughout its run. But for out-of-towners and theatre fans who just haven’t gotten around to this particular holiday show yet, The Christmas Schooner is an excellent example of how a show that is meaningful to the artists involved remains vital year after year.

The Christmas Schooner will play at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N Southport Ave thru December 31, with performances as follows:

schooner3Wednesday:      8:00 pm

Thursday:            3:00 and 8:00 pm

Friday:                 8:00 pm

Saturday:             3:00 and 8:00 pm

Sunday:                3:00 pm

There are additional holiday performances on select dates.

Tickets are $30-69. To order, go to MercuryTheaterChicago.com or call 773-325-1700. Street parking is available.

To see what others are saying, go to TheatreinChicago.com and click “The Christmas Schooner.”

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