A New Musical
Book by John Reeger
Music & Lyrics by Julie Shannon
Musical Orchestrations by Larry Blank
Directed by Chuck Gessert
Musical Direction by William A. Underwood
Enhanced Schooner once again sails into out hearts!
I have seen The Christmas Schooner many times at Bailiwick Repertory under the leadership of David Zak because it was the most heartwarming, emotionally wrenching Chicago style holiday treat. I always hoped I’d one day see this wonderful show done on a large stage with Equity actors and orchestrated with more instruments than just a piano. Well, Theatre at the Center, directed by Chuck Gessert, has mounted just such a production.
Julie Shannon’s folksy score sounds terrific with more instruments including a cell0, percussion, reeds, harp and keyboards. Her vocals, especially the choral harmonies, sounded with more depth. Her anthems: “We All Have Songs” and “What is It About The Water” haunts us and sets the mood nicely. Jack Magaw’s set that changes into the Molly Doone adds much to the production.
The Christmas Schooner is based on a true story, based on the lives of sailors who braved the icy waters of Lake Michigan to bring Tannenbaums to German immigrants living in the 1880’s Chicago.
As I said in 2002: “The Christmas Schooner transforms that historical fact into a generational tale about the importance of family traditions and the challenges immigrants face in meeting a new country and culture. It personifies these issues in the microcosm of the Stossel family. Grandpa Stossel (Peter Kevoian) still clings to his Germanic roots, while his forward-looking daughter-in-law Alma (Cory Goodrich) embraces the new world, refusing to allow German to be spoken in the house. Amid holiday festivities, a letter arrives from a cousin in Chicago who says how it’s nearly impossible to get a Christmas tree in the city and how a generation of German Americans will grow up without experiencing the tradition.”
Alma’s husband, Capt. Peter Stossel (Brandon Dahlquist), wrestles with his love for his family and his desire to bring light into the lives of others, even if it means risking his own life. Peter decides against his wife’s wishes to cut Christmas trees and bring them to Chicago running the risk of the treacherous Lake Michigan winds in late November.
Schooner demonstrates the spirit of togetherness, help and sacrifice that fuels the hearty Midwestern ethic. Shannon mixes her score with anthems, bouncy folksy tunes, ballads and a polka to capture the human spirit of these folks. There is a genuine sentimentality and feeling of goodness that runs through these folks especially the strength of Captain Peter Stossel that Brandon Dahlquist captures so well. He and Cory Goodrich, as Alma, sing their roles with golden voices that exude love.
Peter Kevoian, as the grandfather Gustav added richness and humor to the work while the crew led by Ronald Keaton’s Oscar exhibited the loyalty a crew shows to a top captain. Daniel Coonley, as Karl age 9 and Mitchell Rose, Karl age 15, each were terrific.
The Christmas Schooner is my all-time favorite holiday show and this production adds depth and richness to an already moving classic. Family values, sharing traditions and perking the spirits by helping others are all worthy endeavors especially during the holidays. What better way to celebrate these values then to be moved by this beautiful ode to the basic goodness of man? Shannon’s music will haunt you and Reeger’s book demonstrates the selflessness of man. We all need to hear “The Blessing of the Branch” as it urges us to take the little branch and pass it along. Be sure to take The Christmas Schooner on and pass it along to you family and friends.
At the Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN