"The Christmas Schooner" continues at What A Do Theatre through Dec. 15. Photo: What A Do Theatre

'Christmas Schooner': A Little Rough, But Delivers

By Sue Merrell

Like the ship in the story, What A Do Theatre's production of "The Christmas Schooner" faces some stormy seas, but manages to deliver a boatload of Christmas cheer.

The musical, which opened Nov. 30, reprises a 2011 production that initiated the theater company's new space on West Dickman Road in Springfield. The 80-seat black box theater, which was about half full for Saturday's performance, features a generous stage space that could easily accommodate a believable schooner, large enough for a half dozen sailors and plenty of wrapped, live Christmas trees. (Kudos to set/props master Tom Koehler.)

The 1995 play by John Reeger and Julie Shannon was inspired by the true story of the Rouse Simmons and other 19th century Great Lakes vessels that brought Christmas trees to Chicago from the Upper Peninsula. At the climax of Act I, when the ship delivers its first load to Chicago, the exuberance of the sailors (Joshua Olgine, Nicholas Mumma, Scott Whitesell) and the infectious title song really transports the audience into the holiday spirit of the story. (And the glorious evergreen fragrance of all those trees being unloaded at the edge of the stage doesn't hurt.)

The highpoint of the second act is a very convincing storm at sea when the sailors hang onto ropes being tossed to and fro, and Captain Peter Stossel (Bill Sutherland) wrestles with the wheel, amid a torrent of light and sound effects (lighting design, Cory Kalkowski; sound design, John Purchase).

There are other strong moments as well: The captain and his wife Alma (Betsy King) share a tender dance. Alma and her father-in-law, Gustav (Jeff Stierle), who have been sniping at each other throughout the show, share a beautiful duet, "When I Look At You," in Act II.

But the singing and acting in this show are about as uneven as Lake Michigan in a November gale. Most of the performances would be termed adequate rather than excellent, and some are downright awkward. Music director Brent Decker has developed good harmony in the chorus for such songs as "Blessings of the Branch," but on other songs some individual voices are weak enough that they are easily overshadowed by the simple piano accompaniment.

History buffs who know the actual fate of the Rouse Simmons will be pleased to know this fictional play has a bit more hopeful twist at the end. But the tale is told as though reading from an actual ship's log. I found myself wondering, however, why the first-person recitations of the ship's log were being given by poorly lit female members of the chorus, who were obviously not aboard the boat, instead of a spotlighted member of the sailing crew? Or even a recorded voice of the captain?

This show has some catchy songs and some memorable moments that speak well for director Randy Wolfe and his crew. But much of the show is not up to that standard.

REVIEW:

'The Christmas Schooner'

What A Do Theatre, 4071 W. Dickman Rd., Springfield. Friday-Saturday through Dec. 15, plus Thursday, Dec. 6. $10-$20. 269-282-1953. http://www.whatado.org

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