By Colin Douglas
Traditions, those legends, customs and beliefs handed down from generation to generation, provide the foundation for The Christmas Schooner, a beautifully written historical musical that has itself become a Mercury Theater and Chicago holiday tradition.
The show particularly focuses on Christmas traditions cherished by German immigrants living in the Midwest during the late 1800’s. Motivated by his cousin’s letter, Peter Stossel, a northern Michigan Great Lakes schooner captain, decides he wants to help restore the German tradition of the Tannenbaum by bringing Christmas trees to his relatives living in Chicago. Peter’s overjoyed to see others waiting at the Clark Street port wanting to purchase a fir tree, as well. So what begins as a one-time excursion becomes a December tradition, providing Christmas trees to families of all nationalities in the Windy City.
Karl Hamilton at the wheel Throughout the musical, audiences come to understand many German customs: The straw clad Mummers (“The Mummers Are Here” sung by the superb James Rank, Sean Thomas, Daniel Smeriglio and, as this year’s Peter, the wonderful Stef Tovar), the story behind the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with fruit and nuts (beautifully told by James Wilson Sherman, once again playing Grandpa Gustav) and the traditional baking of the holiday fruit cakes (“Loving Sons” performed by the captivating and talented Brianna Borger, as Alma, and her son Karl, played this year by young tenor, William Anderson). The show opens with the rousing, “We All Have Songs” and “That’s America” and closes with the touching “The Blessings of the Branch,” during which a small spruce limb is passed from the cast to the audience.
This special musical about holiday traditions has become a much-welcome annual event at the Mercury Theatre. Under the wise stage direction of L. Walter Stearns, with whimsical, folk-inspired choreography by Brenda Didier and tight musical direction by Eugene Dizon, this year’s production is sharper, warmer and even more organic than ever. Richard and Jaqueline Penrod’s flexible, multilevel set changes before the audience’s eyes, from the Stossel home to the deck of the Molly Doone and into the Clark Street Pier. It’s solid, simple and exquisite. Carol J. Blanchard’s period perfect costumes and Jason Epperson’s stunning lighting design add the final touches to this show.
In addition to the late Julie Shannon’s and John Reeger’s magnificent script and beautiful music, the primary reason for the show’s richness can be found in its brilliant cast. Stearns’ ensemble features several cast members who’ve previously sailed on the Molly Doone, but there are many newcomers, as well. The cast has jelled into a family that welcomes everyone, young and old, and the love that radiates from this company is authentic.
Tovar’s genuine affection for his young son, his beautiful, steadfast wife and his fiercely supportive father shines so real that his Peter Stossel could not be more moving and truthful. Tovar is matched perfectly by lovely Borger as Alma Stossel, his adoring wife and the mother of his son Karl (nicely played, both by Anderson as a youngster and later by the always excellent Brian Bohr as a teenager).
Borger provides honesty and humor in her layered portrayal of this 19th century woman, whose misgivings about her husband’s chosen mission foreshadow a later tragedy. Borger shines whenever she’s on stage, and particularly during her musical numbers. Whether in her duet with Tovar, “The Strudel Waltz,” that’s more about love and devotion than German pastry, her heartfelt “Blessings of the Branch,” sung with talented young Jaclyn Dougherty as Mary Claire, or in her rage against life’s pain in “Questions,” Borger has made this role every bit her own.
The same can be said about Sherman as Grandpa Gustav Stossel, who’s been playing this role forever. Sherman not only looks and sounds like this proud, first-generation German patriarch; he’s discovered and conveys the subtle nuances and hidden quirks within this role. These are all real, believable people, not just characters, and they bring a forgotten page of Chicago’s history to life. The ensemble of Michael Pacas, Eric Parker, Elizabeth Lanza, Leah Morrow and, especially, Kelly Anne Clark all lend their considerable talent and personalities to this production.
Memories are made once more as old traditions endure and new traditions evolve. Stearns and Dizon clearly understand this with another glorious production of this beloved script that feels fresh and even more exciting this year. A family holiday tradition that continues for many theatergoers and will soon become a new Christmas custom for others, this year’s voyage is overflowing with sincerity and love, and audiences will indeed “Take it, and pass it on.”
“The Christmas Schooner” is presented through Dec. 28 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago. Tickets and additional information are available online at www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com or by calling 773-325-1700. Colin’s reviews are also found, along with additional information about Chicagoland productions, at www.theatreinchicago.com.