Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured (l-r): Brian Elliot, Stef Tovar, Don Forston, Daniel Smeriglio, and Jim Rank. Photo by Brett A. Beiner.
By Bec Willett
I used to think of holiday shows as pretty inspirational pictures of how we should treat each other: sacrifice and service to our fellow humans. I was totally bought in. This year, however, I’ve seen not one (as I might normally) but four holiday shows and with repetition, the picture is starting to tarnish. The most recent of these experiences is Mercury Theater’s THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER.
Produced originally by the Bailiwick and now the Mercury for some years, the historically-inspired narrative of THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER appears to be a tradition for many. This musical focuses on the Stossels, a family of first-generation Americans of German and Swiss descent. Protagonist Peter Stossel is set on sailing through dangerous winter conditions to deliver Christmas trees – tenenbaums – to the German immigrants of Chicago so that they can enjoy their holiday season with the traditions of old. On its face it seems an uplifting, noble origin story worth the telling but the writing and direction of this lengthy two-and-a-half hour musical never truly finds a way to convince us to care.
The inciting incident of this production comes in the form of a letter from Peter’s cousin living in Chicago. You would think that the letter would indicate some dire life-and-death situation to warrant a response risking life and livelihood – but this is not so. Instead, she is a well-off, American-accented, white woman with a family of her own who is just nostalgic for the days of her childhood. As indicated by Carol J. Blanchard’s costumes, she and the majority of the other characters who are seemingly so desperately in need of a tree should have enough money to pay someone to go out into the woods and cut down one down, should they have really wanted it. Yet as a self-made man of the era, Peter is a man of action, and he has decided that it is his duty to risk his life to deliver Christmas trees to other middle-class Germans in Chicago. We are meant to admire this about him. However, it is clear that his sense of duty is highly selective – as it is with many of the male characters in this musical. Over, and over again in this story the men: Peter, his father Gustav who lives with them, and son, Karl, tell wife and mother Alma Stossel that they are intent on taking dangerous actions. Over and over she advises with reason but her advice is ignored, her displeasure supposedly something that can be assuaged with gifts or sentiment. In the end, her unheeded advice is proven correct as something dreadful or significant happens to someone. However, when this woman of intelligence and common sense is given control over her life, instead of following the reasoned advice she has so long given her family she suddenly flips, choosing instead to continue with her husband’s heroic acts of what capitalism clothed in duty. It may make for a neat picture: an emotional woman carrying on her husband’s legacy but it relegates the only leading female character to a trite package full of pat answers and unsupported notions.
Such stereotyped portrayals continue to the poor. While I was happy to be informed by the press packet that the man who inspired Stossel, Captain Herman Schuenemann was not only a man who sold trees, but generously gave them to those who couldn’t afford them, this act of charity didn’t make it to the musical. What did make it was the characterization of the poor from the perspective of those with money – conniving beggars, there to laugh at or be pitied at by those who risk their lives for a bit of extra holiday cash.
Thankfully, one Chicago tradition that did bring joy in this problematic production was the quality of vocals and performances from the cast and crew of Chicago actors and musicians. From the attentiveness of Eugene Dizon’s music direction, the strength and flexibility of the male ensemble voices, blending and weaving in and out of harmony, the bright presence of even the youngest actors Elise Wolf and Leo Gonzalez, these artists are a testament to what Chicago does well. I was especially thankful for Stef Tovar; here he has taken the role of Peter Stossel, in a script full of kitschy cliches and has used his talent and skill to fill it with warmth and humanity, showing himself not only an outstanding vocalist and actor but an expert storyteller.
While some artists may be creating more inclusive holiday traditions — Joffrey’s new version of THE NUTCRACKER or Q brothers’ take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL come to mind — many holiday shows like THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER seem to have been given a pass due to sentimentality and tradition. I know we can do better.
THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER runs through December 31st. For more information visit mercurytheaterchicago.com.