Warm-hearted Chicago musical ‘The Christmas Schooner’ a crowd-pleaser
I have to confess something right from the start: The Christmas Schooner is flat out one of my favorite Christmas time plays. Just the title sets off fond, wonderful memories.
I first saw the show when I was living in Chicago in the mid-1990s. It was the Bailiwick Theatre’s annual Christmas production. A friend of mine in the cast gave me a couple of complementary tickets because it was a Tuesday night and the house was small, so they offered actors the chance to paper the house, so their friends could see their work. I almost stayed home, but my actor friend was a good friend, and so I trudged to the near north side of Chicago in the name of friendship, not expecting much in the way of great art.
I was bowled over by the production, absolutely delighted and enthralled because of this show’s heart and soul. I had witnessed a brilliant little musical. And I would wager that if you come see Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s production of this little gem, you’ll have the same experience I did first time I sat in the dark as a witness to this beautiful story.
The plot is loosely based on actual history. In 1881, a shipping captain who sailed Lake Michigan, Peter Stossel, got a Christmas card from his cousin who was living in Chicago. He noticed her joyful Christmas greeting had a hint of melancholy in it.
Her sadness was explained as missing the old country, missing the old customs back in Germany. Missing, especially, the Tannenbaum, which is German for the tree that was brought into the house every year. It was then decorated as part of the festivities that surrounded the arrival of the Christ child.
After nearly a year of brooding over it, Captain Stossel decided to load his two-masted schooner, The Molly Doone, from stem to stern with Christmas trees and cross Lake Michigan, braving the treacherous November weather. He and his crew launched the inaugural voyage of what came to be known in Chicago as The Christmas Schooner.
The actors who keep Civic’s production of The Christmas Schooner sailing true are Michael Butler as Peter Stossel, Anya Smead as his wife Alma Stossel, and Scott McMeen as Gustav Stossel, Peter’s irascible father. All three have plenty of opportunities to show off their beautiful voices. That coupled with their strong acting skills make the two-hour play feel like you just sat down when you are getting to your feet for the curtain call.
McMeen, it should be noted, also displays a wonderful sense of comic timing.
Rounding out the family is Austin Holt who plays Alma and Peter’s nine-year old son Karl (who loves his Opa, Gustav). And then in the second act, Landon Krafft also takes on the role of Karl. But now he is 15 years old because in the story six years have elapsed.
The five members of the Stossel family are joined by a cast of eight other actors. It’s remarkable that those eight people are able to populate the rest of the play. They move seamlessly from narrating the show to every other character in the play. Whether sailors on The Molly Doone, or women folk from the small Michigan port of Manistique, or denizens of Chicago delighted to get their first Christmas tree as Americans, those eight people do a an incredible job of giving life to all the other characters we see in this production.
Fort Wayne Civic Theatre has staged a good production of a marvelous show. This is the kind of show I know Fort Wayne audiences would like if they gave it a chance. Don’t make the mistake I almost made 25 years ago — when I almost passed up seeing a production of The Christmas Schooner.
It’s a show about kindness, a show about generosity, a show about the importance of family and friendships. It is a show about choosing to use your life to make the world a better place. It is a show that would be perfect to see any time in the year, but it is especially poignant as we move toward preparing our hearts for the Christmas season.