Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Christmas Tree Schooner’ impresses at Sheboygan

SHEBOYGAN, Wis., (WFRV) – “The Christmas Tree Schooner, A Musical” is one of those shows that’s destined for lasting value, especially along the western shore of Lake Michigan, where true-life events in the musical’s story took place. The Sheboygan Theatre Company offers an engaging, visually fascinating (4½ stars out of 5) production through Dec. 14 in Leslie W. Johnson Theatre. Info: www.sheboygantheatercompany.com. The opening performance earned a standing ovation.

Connecting points of the show: Lake Michigan sailing lore, German heritage, Christmas, Christmas trees, Christmas traditions, family, singing, history, musical theater.

Cast

Karl Stossel, age, 9, Luke Gotwald

Gustav Stossel (Opa), William R. Kohler

Alma Stossel (mother), Diane Sciarra

Peter Stossel (father, schooner’s captain), Wally Waldhart

The Crew/Men Storytellers: Rudy/Man 1, Rusty Melberg; Oskar/Man 2, Tyler Maxon; Steve/Man 3, Kyle T. Schwanke; Hans/Officer Wells/Man 4, Jim Wucherer; Karl Stossel, age 15, Tadeo Maier

The Woman/Women Storytellers: Enid/Woman 1, Katy Ries; Martha/Kate/Woman 2, Lindsay Rick; Olive/Rose/Woman 3, Kari Fabian; Mary Claire Daugherty, age 10/Young Girl, Andi Roehl; Young Girl, Danica Hansen.

Key credits

Creators: John Reeger (book), Julie Shannon (music and lyrics)

Joe Feustel, director; Sandra Kasten, musical director; Joe Feustel, set designer; drops painter, Bernard J. Markevitch; costume designer, Don Nicklaus; properties mistress, Jackie Blindauer; lighting designer and engineer, Pat Smith; sound engineer, Gary Kaiser

The songs

“We All Have Songs,” Company

“That’s America,” Alma, Gustav, Karl (age 9)

“The Mummers are Here,” Steve, Oskar, Rudy, Peter

“The Blessings of the Branch,” Company

“The Letter,” Peter, Martha, the Storytellers

“The Letter” (Reprise), the Storytellers, Peter, Martha, Alma and Karl (age 9)

“Another Season on the Water,” the storytellers

“When I Look at You,” Peter

“What is it About the Water?” Company

“The Christmas Schooner,” Peter, Gustav, Steve, Oskar, Rudy, the people of Chicago

“Entr’acte: Song of the Hungry Peasants,” the Storytellers

“Winterfest Polka,” Oskar, Rudy, Rose, Officer Wells, the people of Chicago

“Loving Sons,” Alma and Karl (age 9)

“The Strudel Waltz,” Peter and Alma

“Another Season on the Water” (Reprise), the Storytellers

“Hardwater Sailors,” Karl (age 15), Steve, Oskar, Rudy, Hans and the people of Chicago

“The Storm,” instrumental

“Questions,” Alma

“When I Look at You” (Reprise), Gustav and Alma

“What is it About the Water?” (Reprise), Karl (age 15), the Crew, women Storytellers

“The Blessings of the Branch” (Reprise), Alma, Mary Claire

“Finale,” the Storytellers

“We All Have Songs,” Company

Premiered in 1993, the musical is the story of how a 19th century schooner captain delivered Christmas trees to German immigrants in Chicago and started a tradition. That description is plain in black and white. On stage, with songs, the story is romanticized and loaded with regional color. The show:

– Taps into German heritage roots. Aside from the lure of tannenbaum, the show has a dusting of German language through Opa’s (the grandfather’s) habit of speaking in German first (because it is the language in which he thinks).

– Visits woodsy Upper Michigan. The family part of the story is set where pines for the Christmas trees are cut. The family’s home includes knotty pine. The backdrops are filled with snow-covered pine trees.

– Brings you into the sailor’s life. Through the captain and crew, you get a sense of what sailing was like back when – 1870s to start – when sheets of sails were the only way to go. The set includes a schooner with a mast and a main sail.

– Turns back the clock. You get a sense of 100-plus years ago through costuming and set work, including a family’s dining/living room, dressed with a Christmas tree decorated with period ornaments.

Songs drive the story and fuel emotions. Generally, they are uplifting. Generally. Grief and melancholy are part of the story. The cast has plenty to work with in songs, and performances primarily are appealing and heartfelt. The entourage generates warming harmonies. The mother (Diane Sciarra) delivers telling solos. Especially savory is William R. Kohler, the grandfather, with a rich, strong voice and a way with storytelling. His performance is a bonus for seeing the show.

This production is large in scale. Director Joe Feustel has quite the vision in designing the set and then filling everything in with the people, the stories and the songs. The space has four crucial areas. Arcing along the half-circle line of the seating area is a wharf, on which some action takes place. Nestled at the base of the arc is the orchestra pit – the orchestra being of one, music director Sandra Kasten bustling away on piano (and at intermission staying on to entertain listeners with Christmas tunes). The proscenium stage at the front is where most action takes place, primarily among the family. At the rear, revealed behind a curtain, is the sailing vessel. All in all, the theater fills the bill for presenting the physical elements – comfy family quarters to a Lake Michigan storm. The production includes expansive drops that include forest scenes and a Chicago cityscape. The audience first sees a thematic, a sail-like drop that includes the image of a schooner, a map of the full Lake Michigan, compass points, the title and splashes of holly. The drop is way cool, and its character made me eager to see the show.

SPECIAL EVENT: Rochelle Pennington, author of the book, “The Christmas Tree Ship,” will present a program on the real-life schooner that was the basis for the musical at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, in the theater. More about Pennington and her writings are at www.rochellepenningtonbooks.com.

INTERESTING STUFF: See http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/winter/christmas-tree.html for the fascinating account, “The Christmas Tree Ship: Herman E. Schuenemann and the Schooner Rouse Simmons.” You can see the wreck of the Rouse Simmons at Wisconsin Shipwrecks: The Rouse Simmons – YouTube. The schooner went down in a storm off Two Rivers in 2012 with the loss of all on board. Trunks and bare limbs of some of the Christmas trees remain on the deck. (How’s that for amazing/chilling?)

THE VENUE: The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theatre is a spacious facility in the shape of an amphitheater. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The front row of seats is on the performance level, which is a half circle. A proscenium (flat front) stage area extends across the rear line of the half circle. For “The Christmas Schooner, A Musical,” the performance area makes full use of the space. The theater is located in Horace Mann Middle School, which was built in 1970. The aura of the lobby and theater combined is that of a community gathering place.

THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a Sheboygan superintendent of schools. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was a leader in the development of public education in the United States, including the teaching of teachers.

Warren Gerds
Critic-at-Large

Originally appeared on http://www.wearegreenbay.com/criticatlarge