BWW Reviews: THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER: A Holiday Tradition That Is About--Well, Tradition!

I believe that "The Christmas Schooner" has been performed in the Chicago area every year, except for one, since 1995. And yet, I know for a fact that new theatergoers are discovering it all the time. Hence, it's a good thing that the Mercury Theater on Southport Avenue has mounted this story--based on a real slice of Chicago history--for the second year, and has already announced it for next year as well. It's one of the most popular musicals across the country to originate in Chicago, and we are proud to call it our own. And it struck me this year that this show, wearing as it does its heart on its 19th century sleeve, is becoming a part of our collective holiday tradition, much as the tannenbaum, the Christmas tree, was a tradition for the German immigrants the show depicts (and who many Chicagoans count as ancestors). A show about tradition becoming a tradition itself! How very appropriate--and how very wise to remount.

This full-length musical, the work of Chicago actor and writer John Reeger (book) and the late Julie Shannon (music and lyrics), has other themes as well--the importance of family, the strong ties of community, the importance of keeping difficult promises, and of loving someone despite not entirely understanding what makes them tick. But for me, the importance of remembering who you are, and transmitting the essence of that to your friends and to the next generation, stands out the most in this 2012 production.

The German and Swiss Stossel family, living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, struggles to balance its new life in America with its old-world origins, even as it struggles with the harsh winters and even harsher Lake Michigan water, wind and waves. Peter Stossel is a ship captain, you see, and his love for the Christmas trees of his childhood in Bremen joins with his chosen profession to set a course for triumph, tragedy and transcendence.

This story is based on the real life ship, the Rouse Simmons, which delivered freshly-cut Christmas trees from the U. P. to the Clark Street Docks for three decades, until it sank, tragically and fully loaded, on November 23, 1912--one hundred years ago last week. The story doesn't exactly play out the same way in the show, which may be a smart move on the authors' part, to maintain suspense when there wouldn't be as much if history were scrupulously followed. The Captain who went down with the real ship was Herman Schuenemann, and the differences only start there. But the story ends the same way, with a vow to carry on with tradition. A young Irish immigrant spurs the understanding of the universality of what the German immigrants were trying to do.

Many of the actors in this production have played their roles before, and they do indeed become more complex, deeper performances as time goes by. Captain Peter Stossel's wife, Alma, is played by the luminous Cory Goodrich, the headstrong, modern woman who romances her husband, raises their son and tames her father-in-law, all the while cooking dinner and never losing the perfection of her hairdo. Her singing during her all-too-brief Act II solo, "Questions," is superb. And the song is one of the strengths of the score (interpreted and accompanied here by musical director Eugene Dizon and an atmospheric seven-piece orchestra--orchestrations by Larry Blank).

The men in her life are portrayed first and foremost by role veteran Karl Hamilton as Peter (he sounds better than ever on his solo, "When I Look at You," and is always a lovable and compassionate leader). Peter's father, Gustav, is played by role veteran James Wilson Sherman (Jim to everybody), who is a little hard to understand when he switches around from German to English, but whose gravitas and grit are unmistakable. Her son, Karl, is played by the young actor Benjamin Parkhill, who's 12 years old but whose acting resume is longer than most; and when Karl turns 15, he is played by the very busy young adult actor Mark Kosten. Parkhill and Kosten make the most of their big numbers (the lighthearted "Loving Sons" and "Hardwater Sailors," respectively), and Kosten even stood out in the Act I ensemble numbers, so incandescent is his talent.

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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