Based in part on events recounted in Jay Bonansings’s The Sinking of the Eastland
By Andrew White
Music by Andrew Pluess & Ben Sussman
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
At Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Beautiful sung and marvelously staged folk operetta revives the ghosts unknown victims of a Chicago disaster. Eastland is a major triumph for Lookingglass Thetre!
Event: “July 25,1915: the S.S. Eastland sits on the Chicago River between Clark St. and LaSalle, overflowing with passengers. Slowly the boat leans to port — and keeps leaning, until finally it tips and comes to rest on its side. By day’s end,844 will perish, whole families will vanish, and unexpected heroes will emerge. Unforgettable melodies and haunting harmonies inspired by early American folk music weave a tapestry of working class stories and colorful characters, giving voice to the victims and heroes of that fateful day.”
Andrew Whits, Andre Pluess, Ben Sussman and director Amanda Dehert have launched a movingly wonderful folk operetta to give voice to the victims of the most horrific boating disaster in Chicago’s history. Told with authentic gentleness in a musical narrative, Eastland puts a face on the 844 deaths as it weaves a tapestry of events in a mixture of background hopes and dreams to stirring scenes of doomed victims to vivid depictions of rescue bravery. The movements back and forth in time adds theatricality as it highlights to fast paced events of July 24, 1915.
As we meet the families of mostly Western Electric works, blue collar immigrants, on a one day boat trip on Lake Michigan trusting that the ship, we find out that ship was too top heavy and carries 2500 passengers – a thousand too many. The dozen cast members were equally adept both as actors and many were also musicians. Under musical direction by Malcolm Ruhl flowing music, we hear folk legend Michael Barrow Smith as both the clueless Eastland captain and the lead guitar among the other musician/actors. Erik Hellman and Derek Hasenstab also surprised with musical acumen. Monica West, Claire Wellin and Tiffany Topol also sang with verve and compassion. Special mention goes to Doug Hara as he nimbly plays “the human Frog” who braves the polluted water to save many as well as retrieving 40 bodies.
The staging and set design (by Dan Ostling) with Christine A. Binder’s vivid lighting added to the illusion of a ship then a ship’s interior. The use of wet dripping clothing to symbolize the dead was quite moving.
The sad haunting tone of the folk styled music and the seriously generous use of sung dialogue in a pure operetta motif was skillfully performed giving just the proper tone to this magnificent work. This is quintessential Chicago story told with class in a dynamic trade mark Lookingglass style. The production values and the terrific music and singing make Eastland a “must seeing” show.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2012
For more info checkout the Eastland page at theatreinchicago.com
At Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. in the Water Tower Works, Chicago, IL, call 312-337-0665, www.lookingglasstheatre.org, tickets $34 – $68, Wednesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Thursday , Saturdays & Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 90 minutes without intermission, through July 29, 2012