Chicago Theater Review: EASTLAND: A NEW MUSICAL (Lookingglass Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on June 18, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Eastland: A New Musical is the Lookingglass Theatre’s stunning meditation on one of the most terrible disasters in Chicago history: On the morning of July 25, 1915, an excursion boat overloaded with 2,500 people tipped over while docked along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. The death toll was appalling – 848 men, women, and children. They were working class families expecting a lark of a cruise to Michigan City, Indiana, for an all-day company picnic.

Unlike the sinking of the Titanic, the Eastland calamity hasn’t become a part of the country’s pop culture. But this remarkable fusion of drama and theater addresses that neglect, thanks to a superb musical score, remarkable staging, and a brilliant cast of actors who also sing and perform on an array of instruments that evoke the music of the day, including the fiddle, the banjo, the ukulele, and the accordion.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Eastland at Lookingglass

The audience can sense it’s in for something special as soon as it enters the theater. The acting space has been transformed into a kind of old time revival tent, with spectators sitting on wooden benches facing a raised rough-hewn wooden stage. About an hour through the 90-minute show, a large wall hanging drops from the rear of the stage, revealing three levels of ramps that expand the playing area, allowing the ensemble to fiercely dramatize the horror of the Eastland tragedy in all of its heartbreak.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Eastland at LookingglassEastland is not presented as a documentary. Indeed, the first several scenes give no hint of the disaster to come. Instead, we meet representative characters who will board the ship that morning, most never to return alive. The working-class people are mostly immigrants, including an outgoing 14-year old girl, a wife and mother mired in a boring marriage who has a brief flirtation with a grocer, and a heroic teenager calling himself a human frog who repeatedly dives into the submerged ship to retrieve 40 bodies.

The musical tells the story these average people caught up in a tragedy so incomprehensible that nobody could grasp its enormity even as it happened, neither passengers nor crew. The victims have left no mark on history like the rich-and-famous who went down with the Titanic. One senses that the creators of Eastland are trying to honor these faceless workers and their families. Their names may not survive in the popular imagination, but they still are worthy of remembrance.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Eastland at LookingglassThe show’s numerous mini-stories are told through a wonderful score composed by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman. They create a musical tapestry that weaves back and forth in time before, during, and after the disaster, always keeping the emotional and narrative lines accessible. The music never descends to operatic melodrama or maudlin sentimentality (the program notes call the score a blend of chamber opera, song cycle, and tone poem).

The dozen members of the ensemble take on multiple roles and eight of them provide the musical accompaniment. The cast sings well, some of them beautifully. Every member serves with distinction. First among equals is probably Monica West, the sympathetic, dissatisfied housewife who briefly glimpses a more fulfilling future when she meets the grocer (played with spot-on understatement by Erik Heller).

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Eastland at Lookingglass

Doug Hara is Reggie Bowles, a teenager who risks his life to bring up those 40 bodies from within the boat. But his internalized discussions with magician Harry Houdini are initially confusing and an unnecessary intrusion of fantasy into the otherwise gripping realism of the story. Claire Wellin is charming as the 14-year old girl who survived after being trapped for 11 hours in the boat. Michael Barrow Smith, an icon in the Chicago folk music scene, is outstanding as the sullen boat commander who refuses to become the fall guy for the disaster and stalks off the stage to retire to his farm in Michigan (the real captain of the boast was acquitted of criminal negligence in the disaster). But every member of the cast belongs in the performing honor roll – Jeanne Arrigo, Lawrence DiStasi, Christine Mary Dunford, Derek Hasenstab, Malcolm Ruhl, Scott Stangland, and Tiffany Topol. We likely won’t see a more versatile ensemble in any area theater this season.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Eastland at Lookingglass

Working with an outstanding design team, director Amanda Dehnert has orchestrated a production that tells its story with humanity, poignancy, some humor, great drama, and perhaps most important, with unwavering clarity. The images are haunting, especially the dripping bits of clothing hung on wooden pegs, each representing a drowned victim of the Eastland horror. Characters roam the theater aisles and emerge from and disappear into trapdoors on the stage. Later in the show, they position themselves on the multi-level ramps and walkways at the rear of the stage. Aided by Christine Binder’s evocative lighting, the production weaves its way from intimate domestic scenes to the full frenzy of the disaster. Mara Blumenfeld designed the period clothing that gives the story its crucial sense of time and place. Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli designed the sound, and Malcolm Ruhl is the musical director.

Eastland is one of those rare theatrical experiences that is wholly satisfying in its stagecraft, its performances, and its storytelling. It’s the kind of production that makes Lookingglass such a special company. The final heartbreaking moments of the show had spectators tearing up. The two women sitting next to me were so overcome they couldn’t even applaud at the curtain call.

An organization called the Eastland Disaster Historical Society provides information on the disaster, its victims, and its survivors.

photos by Sean Williams

Eastland: A New Musical
Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago
ends on July 29, 2012 EXTENDED to August 19, 2012
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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