OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: It's a special year for 'Christmas Schooner' theater audiences

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2012-12-03T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: It's a special year for 'Christmas Schooner' theater audiencesPhilip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

The 2012 year marks a special significance for Chicago's own original Christmas stage tale "The Christmas Schooner," which just opened for another seasonal run.

John Reeger's story, paired with the music and lyrics of Julie Shannon, opened last week at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport in Chicago, just a couple blocks from Wrigley Field. It's there until Dec. 30, and this year, it's an audience voyage unmatched.

Not only is it the 100th anniversary of the fateful sinking of the original ship the story is based on, but composer Shannon's death in September at age 71 from cancer gives an extra special meaning to this year's run.

This heart-warming true story is about the first Christmas tree ship, and the family who risked their lives to fill Chicago with the Christmas spirit. The "Rouse Simmons," a Great Lakes schooner, was known as "The Christmas Tree Ship." Its captain risked life and limb to transport fir trees from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Chicago's German immigrants during the late 19th century.

This production includes mostly all the same wonderful names who earned so much praise for relaunching this musical last year. L. Walter Stearns is director, Eugene Dizon as musical director and Brenda Didier as choreographer.

The scenic design also remains the same by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod.

I was very happy to find they are using real evergreen trees for the ship scenes. So as the trees (tied and bundled) are tossed and thrown about, the audience also get to enjoy whiffs of the fresh pine scent as the tree swoosh about through the air.

And when it's time for the great ship to face the wind and storm, the audience feels thrown into the same rocking and rolling choppy waters as the craft.

As for the portrayals, Cory Goodrich is back for another wonderful turn as Alma Stossel, the role she captured when Theatre at the Center staged "Schooner" in 2009. Karl Hamilton is great as her determined husband, Peter. Audiences will remember Jim Sherman back again as the grandfather Gus, which he played for five seasons during Bailiwick Repertory Theatre's 12-year run of "Schooner" that ended in 2008. Mark Kosten is also confident and believable as 15-year-old Karl Stossel.

The costumes designed by Carol Blanchard and lighting designed by Jason Epperson perfectly add to the experience and musical numbers, especially song stand-outs like "That's America," "The Blessings of the Branch" and "We All Have Songs."

Shannon's talent and legacy will live on for many holidays to come with this wonderful work representing faith and perseverance.

Tickets are $29 to $59 with the option of also adding dinner packages for an additional $15 to $25. Groups of 10 or more receive discounts of up to 50 percent. Plenty of meter parking or valet available for $10. FYI: (773) 325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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