November 23, 2011
I've reviewed John Reeger and Julie Shannon's "The Christmas Schooner" in these pages about a dozen times, and now at three different Chicago-area theaters. At this point, this sentimental musical yarn in tribute to the 19th century Christmas tree ships that once plied Lake Michigan in the perilous gales of late November holds no mysteries for me. But I do regard this show — at least when seen in communities forged by the very immigrants the story celebrates — as something close to a sacred part of a Chicago Christmas.
Why? Well, Scrooge is an import. But "Schooner" — listen up, if you are new to town — is a locally created piece that celebrates both the chaotic history of our great city and the new arrivals who built the place, even though they missed home terribly during the holiday season. It is a show that reminds us of the oft-neglected maritime past of this community, and its geographic and cultural links to those up north in Michigan and Wisconsin who forested and hauled the timber for all kinds of Chicago purposes.
Certainly, the story is told with broad strokes. But Shannon's catchy, emotionally rich score, although hardly of Sondheim-esque complexity, is a sweet song suite that somehow draws me back each and every year. The influences are folk, roots, traditional theater music. And even though I could recite every lyric by now, it is a set of songs that offers the kind of balm you get from, say, heading over to the Old Town School of Folk Music for a Christmas concert. You're not looking for new material or formative challenge; you're in search of comfort and a sense of belonging to a specific time in a remarkably complicated place, a place built mostly by the sweat of hardworking, ordinary people. That's what this show offers — along with a chance to show off the proud heritage of our immigrant city.
So when I say that the newest production of the "Schooner" at the reborn Mercury Theater, where it is staged by director (and theater owner) L. Walter Stearns and lightly choreographed by Brenda Didier, is by far the best sung of that dozen I've seen, that's pretty much the whole deal. It's no coincidence. For most of its history at the Bailiwick Arts Center (where it played for years), "Schooner" was a scrappy, low-budget affair, populated by early-career actors with tousled hair, chunky sweaters and period aprons, and accompanied by an upright piano. Stearns has made this a full-on Equity production, thus making it available to the leading lights of musical theater in Chicago. And instead of that piano, you get new orchestrations and a lovely eight-piece orchestra nestled in the rear of this cozy theater. You may well have seen "Schooner" before, but you won't have heard it sung (or seen it acted) at this level. The rich-voiced Cory Goodrich, for example, takes the hitherto one-dimensional character of Alma Stossel (who I always think could use a little scripted softening) and makes her feel like a full woman who could sing her way across the lake.
A few of the folks in this cast — most notably Jim Sherman, who plays the Germanic grandfather of the family of hard-water, salt-averse sailors — are not on their first voyage with this show. Karl Hamilton, who plays the captain of the Molly Doone, also has played the role several times, but has never sounded quite as good as this (the musical direction, from Eugene Dizon, is stellar). Sherman and Elizabeth Haley, who plays Martha, whose desire for a tree sets this series of voyages in motion, have grown immeasurably; Sherman was very moving at Monday night's opening. Stearns also has found an especially strong set of kids (such as Daniel Coonley and Isabelle Roberts) to join his company.
I wouldn't say Stearns has found some revelatory new mode of staging. Not all of this production feels organic (and what's with the artificial Christmas trees instead of the smell of pine?), and you can often guess where, when and how Stearns is going to move some of his storytellers even before he does so. But when you've got a cast of this caliber, the individuals can take charge and make a show pulse with life and heart. So it goes here. Goodrich, Sherman, Coonley and Hamilton make a warm and charming family; the intimacy of theater is the perfect match for material that, for any number of reasons, does not belong in a Broadway-style house. And the overall atmosphere could not be more welcoming to all comers.
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $39-$49.50 at 773-325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com
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