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Review: The Christmas Schooner (Mercury Theater)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: The Christmas Schooner (Mercury Theater)   
The Christmas Schooner 

Written by John Reeger and Julie Shannon
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map)
thru Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$49.50   |  more info

Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



The saga of our treasure trees


Review: The Christmas Schooner (Mercury Theater)


Mercury Theater presents


The Christmas Schooner

Review by Lawrence Bommer

Imagine no Big-Tree-in-the-Walnut-Room at Marshall Field’s Macy’s, no official one in Daley Plaza, no twinkling arbors on Michigan Avenue. The Christmas Schooner pays unforced tribute to the heroic entrepreneurs who made those trees happen, the 19th century schooner captains and crews who braved the November gales of a treacherous Lake Michigan to bring Chicago desperately needed Christmas trees—living mementos of the “Tannenbaum” they’d known in Germany. It’s a vintage Chicago musical, celebrating light and warmth despite December’s dark cold.

Review: The Christmas Schooner (Mercury Theater)
Formerly a 1995 Bailiwick Repertory triumph that evolved into a treasured tradition, The Christmas Schooner was regularly repeated each holiday season for more than a decade, Schooner has since played Munster’s Theatre at the Center. Now it embarks at the Mercury Theater, John Reeger and Julie Shannon’s effortless heartwarmer depicts the hard-won success of a German-American family in upper Michigan to transport excess fir, spruce and pine trees to their Chicago cousins, a venture dogged by uncertainty, both economic and meteorological. If the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer seem more metaphorical than frightening, the November gales and Chicago streets in this blast from the past are very familiar fare.

Rooted in a very real family, the plot draws strength from its fascinating details of Great Lakes sailing, including the disgusting slumgullion stew. Reeger’s script solidly recreates a world that was uncertainly bridging Old World traditions and New World accommodations. Shannon’s score, which effortlessly moves from German hymns and Mummers carols to period polkas, stomp dances and pop anthems (wonderfully choreographed by Brenda Didier), perfectly complements the real-life tale of Captain Peter Stossel. Inspired by a letter from his sister in Chicago, Stossel hit on a new–and very old–use for fir trees of the upper Peninsula: They would become tannenbaum for Chicago’s huge German population–and soon for the entire city. An unexpected crowd of 500 welcomed the schooner “Molly Doone” at the Clark Street dock. Even more unexpectedly, like instant traditions, Christmas trees were instantly adopted by all ethnic groups, making memories that fed on themselves and kept the trees coming.

Too specific to be sentimental, the musical only demands care and charm: Director L. Walter Stearns is true to its big heart, with music director Eugene Dizon all but marinating in Julie Shannon’s lovely melodies. Cary Goodrich and Karl Hamilton (who’s settled into the role very comfortably indeed) are the stalwart Alma and Peter Stossel: His captain courageous radiates authority and, in “When I Look at You,” sheer love, while this richly drawn wife and mother stands for so many wouldn’t-be widows who stared at the skies and feared for their men. As young Karl, Daniel Coonley is a mischievous delight in “That’s What Loving Sons Are Four” and, as teenage Karl, Mark Kosten bumptiously celebrates his love for the lake with the crew in “Hardwater Saillors.”

Review: The Christmas Schooner (Mercury Theater)

Another Schooner veteran, Jim Sherman plays the Teutonic grandpa with a guaranteed foxy twinkle. Playing anyone from hungry peasants to corrupt Chicagoans, this chorus can do no (musical) wrong, bestowing the blessings of a Christmas branch to the audience or contemplating the Great Lakes’ greater dangers and appeal in “What Is It About The Water.”

Chicago has long deserved and, for 16 years now, has thoroughly enjoyed its own Christmas musical, a characteristically commercial celebration of entrepreneurial and meteorological risk-taking. A show about our slaughterhouses wouldn’t have delivered the right holiday cheer – but The Christmas Schooner reflects our surprisingly sentimental, hardscrabble, tough-loving town at its well-earned best.


Rating: ★★★★



The Christmas Schooner continues through December 31st at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Wednesdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm,Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $30-$49.50, and are available by phone (773-325-1700) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at

Review: The Christmas Schooner (Mercury Theater)

All photos by Peter Coombs 


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