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 is as much of a holiday tradition as The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, this year’s much-acclaimed musical is, if possible, even better. Many cast members have returned but, because they bring a year of new skill and life experiences to their roles, their characters are a little wiser, more compassionate and perform with an honest, natural quality that may have been missing in the past. For theatergoers on their maiden voyage, as well as those who’ve booked passage in the past, this is stellar Christmas production, from stem to stern.
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.
Once again this year’s cast is ably led by the excellent Briana Borger and Stef Tovar as Alma and Peter Stossel. Both of these gifted Chicago actors breathe fresh life, love and honesty into their characters this year, playing them with realistic humor and deep poignancy. Each actor magnificently sings with all the passion and poignancy that John Reeger and Julie Shannon intended. The score opens with the rousing “We All Have Songs” and features other touching numbers, like “Blessing of the Branch,” the haunting “What is it About the Water,” as well as the humorous “Loving Sons” and the heartbreaking ballads “When I Look at You” and “Questions.”
This year Nicole Armold (Mercury Theater’s Mary Poppins) plays Martha, Peter’s immigrant cousin. She brings so much heart to this role, while also sharing her talent as part of the magnificent ensemble. Young Leo Gonzalez portrays nine-year-old Karl Stossel. Never delivering a false note, Master Gonzalez offers genuine innocence and believability to Peter and Alma’s only son. Christian Libonati shares this pivotal role, playing Karl at the age of 15. Both actors offer new honesty and sincerity as a sweet, lovingly devoted son.
One of Chicago’s favorite character actors, Don Forston, blessedly returns in the role of family elder, Gustav Stossel. This was a character created by the late Jim Sherman, a much-loved actor who, sadly, left us far too soon. He’s sorely missed, but Mr. Forston, with his spot-on comic timing, vocal prowess and captivating presence has made this lovably headstrong role all his own. A larger-than-life presence, Forston offers a powerful presence and, yet, a gently earnest characterization. Hopefully Mr. Forston will be playing Grossvater Stossel for many years to come.
This year’s revival features a few new cast members who are joining the returning company. Making their auspicious debuts this year are Harter Clingman, as Steve; Jared Rein, as Hans/Officer Wells; Ryan Stajmiger, as Rudy; Holly Stauder, as Olive/Rose; young Ben Miller, as Jan; and Stella Hoyt, as Mary Claire Daugherty, alternating with Elise Wolf in the role. Another Chicago favorite, Ron Keaton returns as lovable Oskar; multitalented Dan Gold sails once again as Louis; and the always wonderful Kelly Anne Clark, repeats her choral role as Enid.
L.Walter Stearns’ direction, while always accomplished, seems even sharper this time around. Not only does this Award-winning director create beautiful onstage pictures and guide his talented company with an athletic mobility, he demonstrates an even more insightful vision for this sentimental slice of local history. Once again he’s assisted 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’ mega-talented musical director, Eugene Dizon, is tucked backstage of Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s versatile, multilevel wood hewn set. He returns to the production, providing all his usual guidance and musical accompaniment.
The story is played out everywhere at the Mercury. It’s staged on, above and below the playing area, sometimes even spilling out into the house, down the aisles and into the audience’s heart. And Carol J. Blanchard’s period-perfect costumes, complemented by Kevin Barthel’s marvelous wig and hair designs, add just the right historical authenticity to this timeless story.
Excellent holiday productions abound everywhere in Chicago. Many have become much-loved family traditions at this time of year. But 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 folksy family Christmas musical, that also sheds light on a forgotten chapter from Chicago history, book your voyage on the beautiful Molly Doone, before this shipload of love sails away for another year. You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 24-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.