Chicago Theater Review: THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on December 8, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


A joyous holiday tradition, The Christmas Schooner has been warming Chicagoan hearts for nearly two decades. Following a lengthy run at Bailiwick Theatre from 1996-2008, it now happily resides at the Mercury Theatre since 2011. L. Walter Stearns directs the present production, Eugene Dizon provides musical direction, and Brenda Didier choreographs. A fun-filled, family-friendly show based on a true story, the Mercury Theatre’s Christmas Schooner brings a much needed dose of realism to a holiday season so often characterized by cartoonish tales of elves, reindeer, and grinches.

Schooner Blessings of the Branch

John Reeger’s book relates how one German immigrant family spread the Christmas tree tradition from upper Michigan to Chicago in the late-nineteenth century. Responding to a family letter, Peter Stossel risks his life and crew in order to sail his cargo of trees across the lake in harsh winter weather. To Peter’s pleasant surprise, his arrival is eagerly welcomed not just by Chicagoans of German origin, but even by those of Italian and Irish ancestry. His initially opposed wife Alma eventually comes on board and carries on the Christmas tree business after his accidental death.


The excellent chemistry between Brianna Borger and Stef Tovar as Alma and Peter Stossel anchors the entire production and gives it emotional coherence. They are absolutely believable as a couple. If Borger and Tovar function as the show’s heart, James Wilson Sherman’s wise and jocular grandfather, Gustav Stossel, is its soul. William Anderson as Karl Stossel (aged 9) and Jaclyn Dougherty are eminently adorable as the youngest members of the cast. Borger’s shipmates Daniel Smeriglio, Sean Thomas, James Rank, Michael Pacas, Brian Bohr, and Eric Parker add plenty of laughs and, with Elizabeth Lanza, Kelly Anne Clark and Leah Morrow, form the show’s serviceable chorus.

Schooner - Karl Hamilton at the wheelJulie Shannon’s music and lyrics brighten up the show, providing it with some memorable songs like “What Is It About the Water?” and “The Blessings of the Branch.” None of it is show-stopping, though, however tuneful and enjoyable. The six-piece house band remains offstage throughout the show and is piped in through the speakers, resulting in an adequate but less-than lush sound.

Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s efficient and practical set design makes the most of a smallish space; its multiple levels serve alternately as dock, deck, and home. Carol J Blanchard’s lovingly rendered costumes and Kevin Bartel’s wig/hair design beautifully evoke the period. Impressively, all the men of the cast appear to have grown real, ample beards for the production. In short, Mercury Theatre furnishes The Christmas Schooner with just the right balance of historical authenticity, compelling drama, and holiday cheer.

Christmas-Schooner-2014-at-Mercury-Theater-Chicago-6photos by Brett Beiner and Michael Brosilow

The Christmas Schooner
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 North Southport Avenue
Wed at 7:30; Thurs at 3 and 7:30;
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 3 and 7:30
scheduled to end on December 28, 2014
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,

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