By Barry Reszel
It’s this time of year again. And it’s all about two things: lists and radar.
Make those lists, check them twice, click here to see how Santa handles wind and snow and ice.
It’s the annual holiday drill. And it’s sure made a whole lot more enjoyable with a seasonal trip to the Lakeview neighborhood where Director L. Walter Stearns and his Mercury Theater Chicago are forcing another “to do” on musical theater-lovers’ Christmas lists with its exquisite production of The Christmas Schooner.
Led by the booming voices of Jeff winner Stef Tovar reprising his role as sailboat Capt. Peter Stossel and Don Forston as his German sailor father, Gustav, The Christmas Schooner (book by John Reeger, music and lyrics by Julie Shannon) is the quintessentially Chicagoland reminder of tradition, family and responsibility. It’s a fictionalization of a true story centering on the beginnings of a practice to sail Lake Michigan in November, bringing the tannenbaum from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Chicago’s German immigrants in the 1880s. A full synopsis of the tale may be red here here.
The drama’s transformational character and third member of its lead triumvirate is Peter’s wife, Alma, magnificently played again this year by Brianna Borger. The musical theatre veteran seamlessly morphs Alma from doting wife and mother to understanding traditionalist. Through her conversion, with assistance from Gustav’s guidance on love and loss, Alma and The Christmas Schooner patrons come to understand, “Our blessings aren’t ours to keep; they’re meant to pass along.”
Young Peyton Owen delights as child Karl Stossel, Peter and Alma’s son, who grows to age 15 in act two where’s he’s capably portrayed by Christian Libonati. And a highlight of its very own is the adult ensemble featuring Kelly Ann Clark, Cory Goodrich, Leah Morrow, Daniel Smerglio, Brian Elliott, James Rank and Dan Gold. A primary takeaway from this annual Schooner sailing (Mercury’s sixth voyage following a long hosting tradition at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre) is that the entire cast is made up of gorgeous vocalists. Tight harmonies and soaring solos showcase Shannon’s lovely score interspersed within Reeger’s wonderfully told tale, leaving patrons to fully believe that, indeed, “the heartbeat of life is in our stories and our songs.”
Add to that Stearns’ intimate mastery of his home stage and splendid cast along with Brenda Didier‘s tight, well-executed choreography. Their combined talents allow nearly every scene to be frozen at any given moment to form a tableau worthy of a Currier & Ives holiday card. Of course that’s only possible with Carol J. Blanchard‘s magnificently regal costumes, wig work by Jason Shivers and Rachel Boylan and a fabulous set from Jacqueline and Richard Penrod.
Vocal quality is thoroughly enhanced both through this intimate venue where patron and performer are separated by the narrowest of fourth walls and by the excellent work of Music Director Eugene Dizon and his musicians. While this reviewer’s personal favorites include “We All Have Songs,” “When I Look at You,” “Another Season on the Water” and “The Blessings of the Branch,” each patron’s notables may vary; there simply isn’t a dud in the bunch.
This is a rich and heavy musical, representative of so much that makes up the American, the Chicago, human existence. Inevitably, part of the experience is grief, felt particularly this year by the Mercury team because of the death of Jim Sherman, who played Gustav Stossel for Mercury’s five prior Schooner sailings and before that at Bailiwick. The program dedication reads, in part: “Jim was a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, collaborator and dear friend. We shall miss Jim’s generous spirit, immense talent, jovial laugh and big heart. He will be sorely missed by the Mercury family as well as the Chicago theatre community.”
Another reminder that gifts must not be taken for granted.
So attend this impeccable show, absorb its teachings on life’s blessings and then, and by all means, pass them on.
“The Christmas Schooner” runs through December 31 at The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.