**** Highly Recommended **** Chicago’s own bittersweet holiday musical, “The Christmas Schooner” has returned to the Mercury Theatre. No matter how many times I see “Schooner”, it still moves me to tears! You won’t want to miss Chicago’s own holiday play, it is truly special! An absolute must-see, I give “A Christmas Schooner” 4 Spotlights.
Late in the nineteenth century, brave sailors risked life and limb on the icy waters of Lake Michigan in November to bring Christmas trees to German immigrants living in Chicago. John Reeger and Julie Shannon pay tribute to their heroic stories in “The Christmas Schooner”.
Captain Peter Stossel (Stef Tovar) has a good life and thriving business in Manistique, Michigan. He lives with his wife, Alma (Brianna Borger), his 9 year-old son Karl (Peyton Owen), and his father, Gustav (James Wilson Sherman). The Stossels honor a lovely German tradition at Christmas dinner when Alma passes a branch of fir to family and friends at the table, while singing a song called “The Blessings of the Branch.” At the end of each performance, the cast shares that touching tradition with the audience.
One Christmas, Peter received a letter from his cousin Martha (Elizabeth Lanza) telling him of her yearning for a Christmas tree, a part of their German tradition. Since his land is covered with fir trees which need to be thinned out, he decides he could harvest some trees and sell them in Chicago.
The following November, over Alma’s protests, Captain Stossel, his father Gustav and a small crew – Rudy (Daniel Smeriglio), Oskar (Matthew W. Miles), and Steve (James Rank) – sailed down the lake toward Chicago with a load of trees, not knowing if they’d sell any of them. When the schooner arrived at the Clark Street dock, they were surprised to find a huge crowd waiting for them. They sold all the trees in just one day.
Captain Stossel continued bringing Christmas trees to Chicago until the year his son Karl (Christian Libonti) turned 15. That year, Gustav broke his arm, so over Alma’s objections, Karl joined the crew. In a terrible winter storm, Captain Stossel held the wheel until the crew got into the lifeboat, but lost his life. After the trees floated to shore, they were loaded onto another ship, which took them on to Chicago.
Sailing ships continued to bring Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago for many years. More recently, Coast Guard ships continue to bring Christmas trees for people who can’t afford to buy one,
Kelly Anne Clark, Elizabeth Lanza and Leah Morrow are a kind of Greek chorus. In addition, the ladies join Michael Pacas, Eric Parker, Christian Libonati, Tova Love Kaplan and Autumn Hlava as mummers, friends, neighbors, and the people of Chicago.
Chicago’s own Christmas story, “The Christmas Schooner” had a 12 year run at the old Bailiwick Theatre, as well as a 2009 production at Theatre at the Center. This is Mercury Theatre’s fifth production; Jim Sherman has appeared in all of them.
By the way, playwright John Reeger has a new musical whodunit, “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes” opening January 20th, also at the Mercury.
“The Christmas Schooner” runs through December 27th at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (in the heart of Wrigleyville), Chicago. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30 pm; Thursdays at 3:00 and 7:30; Fridays at 8:00; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00; and Sundays at 3:00 and 7:30. Valet parking is available. Tickets range from $25-$65. FYI (773) 325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.