UPSTAIRS: Music Makes For Smooth Sailing
Sailing onto South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium stage is a musical drama based on actual events which has been a Christmas tradition for more than a dozen years in the Windy City.
“The Christmas Schooner” is a story of love and devotion set in the late 19th and early 20th century on the shores of the Great Lakes from Manistee, MI to Chicago. It is centered on schooner Capt. Peter Stossel (Mark Torma), a German immigrant, and his family — wife Alma (Dawn Hagerty), son Karl (played as he ages by Blake and Braden Allison), and father Gustav (Steven Chung), who has trouble letting go of their native language.
Karl remarks that the newest trees in the pine and spruce forests of the upper peninsula are so close together they may not survive. When Peter receives in a letter from his cousin Martha (Libby Klesmith) who writes that the German immigrant community in Chicago is sorely lacking one thing that signifies Christmas to them — the tree — it seems to be the answer to the problem. Stack the trees on his schooner, the Molly Doone, and sail them to Chicago.
The only impediment seems to be the threat of the fierce seasonal storms which are frequent in the winter. Alma begs her husband to abandon his plan, but Gustav is with him, as are the other seamen of Manistee, and the fir-loaded vessel sets sail. Peter’s only fear is that his cousin may be the only one who wants a tree and his cargo will be good for nothing but a huge bonfire. The enthusiastic crowd cheering for them as they pull into the dock assures the men that this greatly anticipated “Christmas schooner” will be the first of many.
In spite of Alma’s continuing fear of the winter weather on the lake, the tradition grows and continues until an exceptionally wild storm sinks the Mary Doone and her captain and most of the crew are lost. Nevertheless, the tradition continues and Alma finally realizes the importance of her husband’s vision.
The story of the Christmas schooner is told on a simple set which moves effectively from home to wharf to ship’s deck, thanks to the ingenuity of set designer Jeff Barrack and the use of some highly effective projections.
The main element in this production, however, is the voices. The book by John Reeger ties the obvious and underlying themes together but it is the score and lyrics by Julie Shannon that deliver the heart of this musical drama.
Fortunately, director Gary Oesch, assistant director Mary Ann Moran and musical director Karen Stonehill, have assembled a group of outstanding voices and instrumentalists. Not only do they deliver the frequently poignant solos and duets but blend smoothly for the choral narratives which are sometimes solemn (“Another Season on The Water”) and sometimes rowdy (“Winterfest Polka”).
Torma, Hagerty and the always-reliable Chung have the primary solo duties and are a pleasure to listen to,. The same is true of Klesmith who, with Chung and both Allisons, also is required to blend into the chorus. Chung, an SBCT veteran, delivers the most-relaxed performance but there is no doubt that the few-but-mighty sailors are having a great time aboard the Mary Doone. The same goes for the ladies waiting on shore.
In a season mostly filled with the tried-and-true, it is a pleasure to experience something new, especially when that “something new” is well done.
“The Christmas Schooner” is definitely good vessel for the entire family.
“THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER” plays through Dec.23 in the Wilson Auditorim at 403 N. Main Street, Soouth Bend. The run is sold out but contact the box office (574) 234-1112 in case of cancellations.
DOWNSTAIRS: Homefires Are Strictly Dysfunctional
If your idea of “A Nice Family Christmas” is a house full of dysfunctional relatives, all of whom have problems with themselves and each other, then the current South Bend Civic Theatre production, which opened Friday evening in the Warner Studio Theatre, is well-named!
It is not my idea of fun, but the sold-out audience Saturday evening seemed, for the most part, to find it exactly their cup of Christmas cheer.
The story centers around Mom (Susan Griffin), in whose home the “celebration” takes place. Grandma (Barb Thomas) is already in residence — temporarily or permanently is not decided. On the guest list are sons Carl (Andy Barzelli) and Michael (Curt Goodrich Jr.), daughter Stacy (Brenda Nayeli Gonzalez) and Michael’s wife, Jill (Colleen Dabler), who may or may not show up. Winning the “unwanted guest” award is Uncle Bob (Brad Mazick), brother of Mom’s late husband and a practicing alcoholic.
As Mom tries to keep the festivities on a family-friendly note, it becomes apparent that her efforts are not only futile but only making things worse.
Carl, a journalist about to lose his job, has just lost his long-time girlfriend. He is assigned to write a story about his family Christmas. Certain that brother Michael, a doctor, is the family favorite, Carl longs to work his way up the family food chain.
Michael works hard at keeping his secrets hidden, a task that becomes increasingly difficult when Jill, who is prone to very shrill fits of hysteria, shows up and reveals that, contrary to family belief, they have been separated for months.
Stacy, who announces she is a lesbian, seems the most level-headed of the group, her only worry is that her partner still has not come out to her parents.
Uncle Bob, the uninvited guest, is by far the most obnoxious. He hangs over Mom and consumes any alcohol available, becoming increasingly loud and unsteadily boorish.
Running neck-in-neck with Bob as the most embarrassingly crude guest is the blowsy family matriarch. Grandma, who manages to interject sex and her participation in many varieties with many partners no matter what the situation being discussed, is more like a porno senior than a proper matron. She gives “advice” loudly and in the most graphically crude terms and delights in demonstrating her up-to-date persona by twerking (if you don’t know what this is, check with Taylor Swift).
There is no doubt that the entire cast is pulling out all the stops, with good taste definitely not a consideration. This, I have to acknowledge, is a difficult thing to do, especially when family and friends are sitting right under your nose, so congratulations to cast and director Megan Chandler for letting inhibitions fly. I must attribute the emphasis on tastelessness to the author, Phil Olson, and wonder if the comedy would be lessened if the crass element was downplayed.
Of course, by the final blackout everyone has become full of the real Christmas spirit and there is love all around. It’s kinda too little too late.
There is one big bright holiday star in the Warner Studio Theatre, however. It is Jeff Barack’s warm and wonderful set, bright and cheery and full of the season. To make it even cheerier, the program contains a recipe for Jack (Daniels) Bourbon Balls. Having a few before curtain time might help put you in the mood!
“A NICE FAMILY CHRISTMAS” plays through Dec. 15 in the Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre, 403 N. Main St. Scheduled performances are sold out but an additional one has been added. For time and reservations, ca;; (574) 234-1112 weekdays.