They come to learn, as the Grinch came to learn and Ebeneezer Scrooge came to learn and characters of other great holiday classics came to learn: It is never just about the tree; it’s about what the tree represents. And so the Schooner protagonists sit ’round the dinner table, proffer a pine branch to one another, and prove the point of Christmas is to fill oneself with love and loss and light, and to “take it and pass it on.”
Hilarious and heartbreaking, and ultimately heartwarming, Mercury Theatre’s annual presentation of The Christmas Schooner is the tale of family and friends who brought the first Christmas trees to Chicago. Upon learning that his cousin and her fellow German immigrants were pining for the pines, Captain Peter Stossel deigns to deliver the Tannenbaums, with the help of his wisecracking father, reluctant wife, idolizing son, and merry band of men.
Spending weeks cutting down Christmas trees, they venture to ship them across the perilous and pernicious November waters of Lake Michigan, so that its citizens of Chicago might forge their own Yuletide memories. Now mere memories themselves, these brave folk risked life and limb, all for the sake of bringing holiday cheer to the windy city.
The creative team beckons the audience into the realm they’ve created, long before a soul has even entered the auditorium. The hallway is adorned with garland, affixed with apples, walnuts and silver, the significance of which is told in an anecdote by James Wilson Sherman‘s scene-stealing Gustav Stossel. Entering patrons are lulled into this world by a loop of lapping of waves and cawing of gulls, designed by Mike Ross in stark contrast to the din of disastrous weather he later conjures.
The set, designed by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, is not only ship-shaped, it’s simply ship-shape. Carefully crafted to look worn and weathered by the waves, the rustic wood fits not only in line with the aesthetic of the show, but of the theatre itself, the crown-molded columns on the walls evoking carved figureheads on the prow of a boat.
Like a ship itself, not an inch of space goes to waste. Everything on stage is utilized: a trapdoor doubles as below decks and a convincing fire pit, the ropes of the rigging are functional pulleys to heave and ho, the masts are completely climbable, fog and snow machines are carefully concealed and deftly deployed, and even the audience itself is used for smart effect.
A ship is nothing without a capable crew. The ensemble work in Christmas Schooner is simply incredible. From the hearty harmonies of the schooner sailors that make one yearn for the waves, to their female counterparts in equal elation, to the ecstasy of them performing together, everyone pulls their weight on this ship. It is a testament to the power of this ensemble and the color of the characterizations that it is difficult to surmise who sits at the helm of this ship.
Stef Tovar is this voyage’s captain, Peter Stossel, who is at once commanding, charismatic and questioning his own mission. Much like a real captain, he is at his peak when working with shipmates. Two highlights illustrate Tovar holding the wheel of his vessel as tightly as he does the audience’s heartstrings: the introspective “When I Look At You,” where he tenderly sings how he wishes he were the hero his son sees and, “The Strudel Waltz,” where the audience is shown gently developed, deep love between husband and wife.
Musicals about sailing are legally obligated to feature small boys with toy ships. (And why shouldn’t they? It’s a stalwart symbol for the promise of adventure, the innocence of hope, the yearning for freedom.) What they’re not obligated to feature is a boy as talented as Peyton Owen. Utterly endearing with impeccable comedic timing, he warms the cockles of patrons’ hearts in Act 1 and busts their guts in Act 2. A ship sails onward, and a boy must grow up, but fans keeping a weather eye will see a nice bit of staging and acting during the opening number, when Christian Libonati (playing the 15 year old incarnation of Karl) steals a wistful smile at his younger self, who is every bit as great and likable as he is.
James Wilson Sherman as Gustav is the requisite wise, wistful, wisecracker with a white beard. His stubbornness and sly jokes belie a gentle man whose heart is as worn as the lines in his face. He is the center around which the cavalcade of comedians revolves, the hilarious trio of Rudy, Oskar, and Steve (Daniel Smeriglio, Matthew W. Miles and James Rank, respectively) whose triple baritone barrage offers rollicking good time. Rank perhaps possesses the wryest timing and gets a bigger bit of the dramatic meat, offering his doubts in the mission and his support in times of woe.
Like a ship or a storm, Schooner takes a little while to gather momentum. It begins perfectly quaint and pleasant. The actors are able to generate enough charisma, enough loving relationships onstage to garner goodwill and gather wind in the show’s sails. By the time Act 1’s closing numbers, “What Is It About The Water” and “The Christmas Schooner” come ’round, patrons are entirely engrossed in this cheerful, crafty, compelling, completely cool staging.
Brianna Borger is a perfect example that this is no problem at all. She is a bigger force to reckon with than any gale, only mounting in power as the play progresses. She plays loving wife Alma with a strict joy and a worrisome countenance in the first act, until she is unleashed in her full power in the second act. We see her play concern, comedy, levity, love and loss, with a tremendous voice to match. She deserves every millisecond of the last bow.
Dressed impeccably by Carol Blanchard, all of the characters look, sound and feel fully 19th century. While the sailors’ costumes could perhaps use a pinch more distressing for the sake of verisimilitude, the outfits are exquisite. The blocking and choreography is inspired, and executed seamlessly by this crafty crew.
Rousing dances, hoisting of sails, climbing of rigging, weathering of storms and snow in slow motion are among the exploits witnessed. A particularly slick yet sentimental sequence is “The Letter,” when Captain Stossel reads a letter from cousin Martha (the effervescent Elizabeth Lanza), and through the wily and whimsical movement of cast and masterful crossfading from lighting designer Jason Epperson, he is suddenly transported to his youth, basking in his memories of the Tannenbaum.
In stark contrast to this is another brilliant staging, “What Is It About The Water.” With the haunting hand of Eugene Dizon stirring souls with a melody for the mystery of the waves, the men fight for their lives in the frightening gale as their wives wage a different war of worry back home. Sails billow, men tug at the lines, and theatergoers tug at their nails.
Director L. Walter Stearns is a capable and commendable captain if ever there was one. His ship is a valiant vessel indeed, plowing the deep with delight and despair. Praise is also in order for choreographer Brenda Didier. What musical can claim to have choreographed Christmas trees? Many musicals entreat audience members to clap along. This one compels them to with its electric earnesty.
What is Christmas without melancholic merriment, and merry melancholia? What’s Christmas without a Christmas tree? What’s Christmas without The Christmas Schooner? It’s a holly-jolly and harrowing holiday classic. Take it, and pass it on.
“The Christmas Schooner” runs at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago, through December 27. Shows are Wednesdays at 8 pm, Thursdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Additional holiday performances are December 20 at 8pm, December 22 at 8pm and December 23 at 3pm. More information and tickets ($25-$69) are available online here or by phone at 773-325-1700.