Tradition! The Holiday season is filled with many family traditions, some unique and some understood by all. For many years, in the theater community, at the “Old” Bailiwick Theater on Belmont, Christmas meant, “The Christmas Schooner” would bring joy and cheer as well as history and tradition for Chicagoans. This warm and sentimental story based on ” The Rouse Simmons” a Great Lakes Schooner, with a book by John Reeger ( yes, that’s right, one of Chicago’s favorite actors and music and lyrics by Julie Shannon is charming and will bring a tear to your eye. For the dozen plus years it was performed at Bailiwick, they used the larger theater and it always worked to perfection. Now, they have brought the play back, at the much smaller staged Mercury Theater and at first I feared that they could not pull it off in this smaller space. I must admit I forgot that at the Mercury Theater,L. Walter Stearns would be directing. Stearns, coming from the Porchlight Music productions at The Theatre Building/Stage 773, is a master of putting on big productions in a small space, just as musical director Eugene Dizon can fill a theater with great sound and yet not drown out the actors. To add to the production staff as the choreographer, Brenda Didier was pure genius as she also is a miracle worker when it comes to taking a limited space and creating a picture that appears much larger. In fact, this particular show, her first in Chicago back at Bailiwick, has a special place in her heart which is very evident in the work she did on this production.
While these forces are the start of a production that will fill your heart with emotion and bring a tear to your eye while bringing a smile to your face, it takes a full team to mak ethis happen.A magnificent set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, lighting perfectin by Jason Epperson, wonderful costuming by Carol J. Blanchared and perfect sound design by Michael Ross. Of course, even if the technical part of a production is perfect, the story a delight an dthe music meaningful, it takes a cast of talented performers to make all these things truly become a theatrical experience you will enjoy and want to see again. This one does just that!
Before I get to thei extraordinary cast, let me tell you the story.The storyline is about a man who, in order to bring Christmas spirit to Chicago, takes risks and brings his schooner across Lake Michigan, from Upper Michigan, in the dead of winter. Against all odds, fighting a storm, he makes it ,with the people of Chicago waiting for the ship and its cargo- Christmas Trees. He had promised his wife that it would be just one trip, but after seeing the people’s faces and their happiness, each year, he continued to bring even more trees to Chicago. As the years went on, his son grew older and when “Grandpa” couldn’t make the trip, the son joined on the journey. This year, the storm was more than they can handle with the larger load of trees and the ship and the Captain went down. The trees, however, survived and the men went back to deliver them in order to keep the spirit alive as the Captain would have wanted and on this trip, his wife went as well. Again, keeping the spirit alive and the dreams and memory of her husband. This is where that little tear drips down your cheek, no matter who you are, it’s okay to let it drip.
Peter Stossel, the ship captain is played by Karl Hamilton ( who has played this role four previous times and make sthis role his own. His wife , Alma is played by Jeff Award winner Cory Goodrich, who brings her great voice and acting ability to a role that takes a great deal of heart and soul. Their son, Karl is played by two actors, the adorable Daniel Coonley at age 9 and Mark Kosten at 15 ( great agility and a powerful voice). Peter’s father, Gustav is once again played by Jim Sherman ( this part could have been written with him in mind). This is the family and each and everyone is terrific, but as you know, the ensemble is of great importance to a musical and this one is as solid as a rock; Thomas M. Shea,Ronald Keaton,Benjamin Magnuson,Ryan Westwood,John Finel,Caroline Kobylarz,Elizabeth Haley,Dina Dicostanzo,Isabelle Roberts ( another adorable child actor), Kelly Anne Clark and Catherine Stegemann. Many of these actor/singer/dancers play many roles and handle each one with style and grace. There are imes these twelve ensemble members seem to be three times that amount, filling the stage ( and the aisles) with the true spirit of this wonderful story.
While the songs in this musical are not ones that you will hum going out the door, each one brings the storyline forward and many are loving warm and sweet words that mean a great deal to what Reeger and Shannon wanted this story to be about: love, honor, caring and Christmas ( tradition)! This is a production that you need to fit into your busy schedules and will continue at The Mercury Theater throug December 31st with performances as follows:
Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.,Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.,Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Tickets range from $30-$49.50 ( you can add dinner packages for $15-$25) There are two restaurants adjoinging the Mercury, Deleece and Cullen’s Bar & Grill. Also, Southport has many dining opportunities within walking distance.
To order your tickets call the box office at 773-325-1700 or online www.mercurytheaterchicago.com
The theater is located at 3745 N. Southport ( Wrigleyville).with valet parking, street parking(metered) and a lot one block north.