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

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 11, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Anchors aweigh! Twenty-two years after its advent, this show has become as essential to Chicago’s Christmas as the LEDs on the Magnificent Mile, the parade on State Street, the “Zoolites” of Lincoln Park, the skating rink by the Park Café, or the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theatre. (I’d include A Christmas Carol at Goodman Theatre, but that cash cow/chestnut lost its authenticity when Larry Yando turned Scrooge into a vaudeville ham.)

But The Christmas Schooner is especially crucial when it comes to the central symbol of the season: the Christmas tree. Imagine no “Big Tree” in the Walnut Room at Macy’s, no official one in Millennium Park, no twinkling arbors on Michigan Avenue. No, it’s too terrible to contemplate. Likewise Chicago without this show.

Schooner pays unforced tribute to the heroic entrepreneurs who made those trees happen, the 19th-century schooner captains and crews who braved the November gales of a treacherous Lake Michigan to bring Chicago desperately needed Christmas trees — living mementos of the “Tannenbaum” they’d known in Germany. It’s a vintage Chicago musical, celebrating light and warmth despite December’s cold dark.

Formerly a 1995 Bailiwick Repertory triumph that, evolving into a treasured tradition, was regularly repeated each holiday season for more than a decade, The Christmas Schooner later played Munster’s Theater at the Center. Now for the seventh time it embarks at the Mercury Theater, virtually intact since 2011’s recent inception. This effortless heartwarmer by John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon depicts the hard-won success of a German-American family in upper Michigan to transport excess fir, spruce and pine trees to their Chicago cousins, a venture dogged by uncertainty, both economic and meteorological. If the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer seem more metaphorical than frightening, the November gales and Chicago streets in this blast from the past are very familiar fare.

Rooted in a very real family, the plot draws strength from its fascinating details of Great Lakes sailing, including the disgusting slumgullion stew, the Mummers who’d visit on Christmas Eve, a “Winterfest” carnival in Chicago, clog dancing and a “strudel waltz.” Reeger’s script solidly recreates a world that was uncertainly bridging Old World traditions and New World accommodations. Shannon’s score, which effortlessly moves from German hymns and favorite carols to period polkas, stomp dances and pop anthems (wonderfully choreographed by Brenda Didier), perfectly complements the real-life tale of Captain Peter Stossel.

Inspired by a letter from his sister in Chicago, Stossel hit on a new — and very old — use for fir trees of the Upper Peninsula: They would become tannenbaum for Chicago’s huge German population — and soon for the entire city. An unexpected crowd of 500 welcomed the schooner “Molly Doone” at the Clark Street dock on the Chicago River. Even more unexpectedly, like instant traditions, Christmas trees were adopted by all ethnic groups, making memories that fed on themselves and kept the trees coming.

Too specific to be sentimental, the musical only demands care and charm: Director L. Walter Stearns is true to its big heart, with music director Eugene Dizon all but marinating in Shannon’s lovely melodies. Brianna Borger and Stef Tovar (who have settled into the roles very comfortably indeed) are the stalwart helpmates Alma and Peter Stossel: Impish but always dignified, tough and tender, Peter’s “captain courageous” radiates authority and, in “When I Look at You,” sheer love, while this richly drawn wife and mother, who can beam in her dreams, stands for so many wouldn’t-be widows who stared at the skies and feared for their men.

As young Karl (appearing a generation after the first one), adorable Leo Gonzalez brings utter spontaneity and mischievous delight to his second-act tour-de-fun “That’s What Loving Sons Are For.” And, as blond teenage Karl, Christian Libonati bumptiously celebrates his love for the lake with the crew in “Hardwater Sailors.” The crews were their own exclusive nautical community, here happily integrated when Alma finally joins the team.

A Chicago favorite on many stages, Don Forston plays the Teutonic grandpa with a guaranteed foxy twinkle and just the right gravity during the musical’s tender turning points and culture clashes. Forston knows exactly when to wax serious and wane comic, never missing a joke or tall tale (of which there are plenty). Playing anyone from hungry peasants to corrupt Chicagoans, this chorus can do no (musical) wrong, bestowing the blessings of a Christmas branch to the audience or contemplating the Great Lakes’ greater dangers and appeal in “What Is It About the Water.”

Chicago has long deserved and, for over two decades now, has thoroughly enjoyed its own Christmas musical, a characteristically commercial celebration of entrepreneurial and meteorological risk-taking. A show about our slaughterhouses wouldn’t have delivered the right holiday cheer — but The Christmas Schooner reflects our surprisingly sentimental, hardscrabble, tough-loving town at its well-earned best.

An interesting historical note: The tragic inspiration for this musical occurred the same year as the Mercury Theater (formerly the Blaine Nickelodeon) was built. It was the shipwreck of the Rouse Simmons, the beloved “Christmas Tree Ship.” Captain Herman Schuenemann, who would give free trees to the needy from his Clark Street docks, was caught up in a fierce storm on November 23, 1912. The ship foundered, only to be discovered 59 years later beneath 170 feet of water. The schooner and its 5,500 well-stacked trees remain preserved by Lake Michigan.

This musical’s memorial is a legacy as palpable as the lost Tannenbaum.

photos by Brett A. Beiner

The Christmas Schooner
Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport Ave.
Wed at 8; Thurs at 3 and 8; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on December 31, 2017
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit  Theatre in Chicago

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