Chicago Theatre Review
Another Shipload of Love Sets Sail
The Christmas Schooner – Mercury Theatre
Even if you’ve sailed on the Molly Doone before, and certainly this joyous, heartwarming show has become as much of a holiday tradition as The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, this year’s critically acclaimed musical is, if possible, even better. Many cast members have returned but, because they bring a year of new life experiences to their roles, their characters are wiser, more compassionate and possess a natural quality that may have been missing in the past.
The biggest change in this revived production is a new cast member. Chicago favorite and veteran actor, Don Forston, steps into the role of family elder, Gustav Stossel. This was a character created by the late Jim Sherman, a much-loved actor who sadly passed away earlier this year. He’s missed, especially in this show, which is dedicated to his memory; but Mr. Forston, with his typical brilliance, makes this headstrong leading role all his own. With his larger-than-life presence, his forceful vocals and, yet, a gently earnest characterization, we can only hope that Mr. Forston will be playing Grossvater Stossel for years to come.
Making their auspicious debuts in this year’s production are Brian Elliott, as Oskar, Dan Gold, as Louis, and returning, Jeff Award-winning actress, Cory Goodrich, who played Alma Stossel for three seasons. This year she’s back onboard, but portraying cousin Martha on this voyage. Also returning to the Molly Doone are talented triple-threats Kelly Anne Clark, Leah Morrow, Tova Love Kaplan, Autumn Hlava, James Rank, Michael Pacas and Daniel Smeriglio
L.Walter Stearns’ direction seems even sharper this time around. Not only does he create some beautiful onstage compositions, and guide his company with an athletic mobility, he demonstrates a more insightful vision for this sentimental slice of local history. He’s aided by Jeff Award-winner Brenda Didier, whose beautifully executed, hard-hitting, folk-inspired choreography is once again dazzling and brings the joy to this musical. Stearns’ talented musical director, Eugene Dizon, and his skilled orchestra, are tucked away backstage of Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s versatile, multilevel wood hewn set. The story lives everywhere, on, above and below the playing area, sometimes even spilling down the aisles and into the audience’s heart. And Carol J. Blanchard’s period-perfect costumes, complemented by Kevin Barthel’s wig and hair designs, add just the right historical touch to this timeless story.
The musical, researched and written by John Reeger, with a lovely, haunting score by the late Julie Shannon, is based upon a 100-year-old incident. It tells of Peter Stossel, a ship captain who, inspired by his cousin Martha’s letter, risks his life to brave the treacherous icy waters of Lake Michigan to deliver Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Chicago’s German immigrants. Alma, his loving, hardworking wife and the mother of his young son Karl, is fiercely reluctant to let Stossel make such a dangerous voyage. The play not only examines the importance of keeping family traditions, but it demonstrates the power of love and our willingness to sacrifice for others.
The cast is again ably led by Briana Borger and Stef Tovar as Alma and Peter Stossel. Both of these gifted Chicago actors breathe new life and love into their characters, playing them with staunch honesty, while magnificently singing with all the passion that Reeger and Shannon intended in these roles. Cory Goodrich sensitively plays Peter’s immigrant cousin, Martha, as well as bringing her considerable talents to the rest of the magnificent ensemble. Young Peyton Owen and Christian Libonati share the pivotal role of young Karl, Peter and Alma’s only son. Both actors offer a fresh, honest believability, with 9-year-old Karl, played by Owen, as a sweet, devoted son, showing inklings of the determination that 15-year-old Karl, portrayed by Libonati, displays later in the play. Each member of the ensemble brings additional exuberance and conviction to his or her role. The cast, whether going solo or harmonizing as an ensemble, has to be one of the finest groups of vocalists ever heard in the Mercury Theatre.
Excellent holiday theatrical traditions certainly abound everywhere in Chicago. It must be remembered, however, that they include more than just Clara and a Nutcracker Prince or a child named Tiny Tim and a miser named Scrooge. For a more intimate, truly heartwarming family Christmas musical, that also offers a forgotten chapter from Chicago history, book your voyage on the beautiful Molly Doone before this shipload of love sails away for another year.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 30-December 31 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-325-1700 or by going to www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.