What an utter delight to recently attend a performance of the musical, “The Christmas Schooner” at Mercury Theater Chicago.
Nestled in our seats we were greeted by a stage with wooden planks, ropes, a nautical, massive map of Lake Michigan in the background, and prominently taking its place (center stage) was a Christmas tree (perfectly situated for a play about Christmas trees, I’d say)! The set design looked like the inner workings of an old sailing vessel; simple, yet very effective.
Our story begins in the early 1900s on Christmas Eve, where Peter Stossel, Captain of the schooner ship, the, “Molly Doone” sits with his wife Alma, son Karl, fellow crew member (and father) Gustav, and friends around a dining table. He reads a letter from his cousin in Chicago, describing how she terribly misses having a Christmas tree, like she had back in Germany. The stage is set (literally and figuratively), as Peter decides to take his ship and crew through the stormy waters of Lake Michigan the following Christmas season. They will travel to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to cut down hundreds of fir trees and sail to Chicago. Providing the spirit of Christmas to German immigrants in Chicago is what this perilous journey is all about; the Christmas tree is certainly one of the most loved and cherished of all Christmas traditions.
How will the crew be greeted in Chicago? Will anyone, save Peter’s sister, be waiting at the pier? Ah, the scene brings us to the docks of Chicago, where people have turned out in droves to acquire a magnificent tannenbaum (German for, “fir tree”). After such an overwhelming (and unexpected) greeting, the stage is transformed into a, “dancing on the docks” performance:
With sensational singing and dancing, I found myself clapping to the beat with my hands and my feet! What fun!
Much to the chagrin of Alma, and based on the stunning success of the Christmas voyage, Peter announces he and his crew will repeat this spirited excursion again next year; and again, and again for the next six years.
With Gustav nursing an arm injury, it is son Karl who declares his readiness to join his father and crew on their annual Christmas tree travels. Woe betide those that do not heed the watery warnings of Great Lake Michigan and its mighty wrath. The Molly Doone is caught up in a tumultuous storm:
Captain Peter does not survive. News of the tragedy hits Alma very deeply. Karl is subsequently rescued, along with other members of the crew.
Fast-forward to the following Christmas season. Young Karl announces he will take the crew back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula yet again to carry on the Christmas tree tradition his father so lovingly cherished. Despite its enormous risk, the deep and meaningful symbol of Christmas for so many people must be fulfilled. It’s significance and importance supersedes the danger factor for Karl and the other crew members.
The production concludes with an uplifting and inspiring song and dance number by the entire cast, which exemplifies the importance and symbolism of the Christmas tree to early German immigrants in Chicago: bridging some, ‘homeland’ customs with a new atmosphere of the holiday season.
The production was influenced by a true story based on Captain Herman Schuenemann and his crew aboard the ship, “Rouse Simmons”. During the winter of 1912, this brave group sailed from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula through the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan; the cargo was thousands of Christmas trees. German immigrants in Chicago would anxiously await the arrival of what became affectionately known as, “The Christmas Ship”. Providing Christmas trees to these folks allowed for a little bit of tradition they so terribly missed from their German homeland. Sadly, the ship went down in a violent storm. A few weeks ago, I posted the photo (below) in a preamble about today’s post; nonetheless, I thought I would post it again:
I now know why, “The Christmas Schooner” is such a popular and traditional holiday endeavor. With its cast of incredible singing voices, to the poignant and deep-souled performances, this production clearly captures the wondrous energy of the Christmas tree custom in so many homes and locations around the globe. Well done, cast and crew!