Playwright: music & lyrics by Julie Shannon, book by John Reeger. At: Bailiwick Repertory Theatre at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont. Phone: 773-883-1090; $20-$25. Runs through: Jan. 4. Photo courtesy of David Zak
What a long strange journey it's been! Who knew when this homegrown musical premiered at Bailiwick Repertory in 1995, that in the next 13 years, it would be restaged in maritime cities throughout the Great Lakes region, in landlocked outposts where sailing ships are as exotic as rickshaws ( Arizona, Colorado, Texas ) and even in seafaring towns across the Atlantic ( Bristolthe English onein 2003 ) .
Part of the answer lies in its historical roots. John Reeger's book recounts the real-life story of the Michigan captain who braved the winter storms in 1882 to bring trees to Chicago's German immigrants, homesick for their tannenbaums. More than this, however, is the manner in which this deed invokes a central theme in American literaturethat of the lone individual whose convictions spur him to venture forth on a mission to create a legacy that lives on after his death. And it doesn't hurt that the cast is a veritable catalogue of popular American archetypes: a happily married couple, their dutiful son ( whom we meet both in pre-puberty and in adolescence ) , a wise old grandfather, hearty sailors and sturdy wives.
What distinguishes the 2008 production from its previous incarnations is not only that it marks Bailiwick's farewell to its space on Belmont Avenue ( recently purchased by Theater Wit ) , but that, for the first time, Julie Shannon's intricate score replaces the customary single piano with a five-piece orchestra, placed upstage center ( à la Black Ensemble's Jimmy Tillman ) and led by Jeremy Ramey. This, in turn, pushes the action farther downstage, rendering the words more audible than in recent memory. And though Mary Beidler Gearen's direction sacrifices none of the intimate warmth that made this show what it is today, the escalated volume of the accompaniment forces the vocalists to sing in a broader fashion, with a corresponding increase in the dramatic size of their various characters.
But if this almostdare we say it?operatic interpretation less resembles the Christmas Schooner we remember, it represents the Christmas Schooner that we are likely to see in 2009and long thereafter. The voyages of the good ship Molly Doone and the universal appeal inspired by its philanthropic lesson have already delighted holiday audiences in ports as diverse as North Dakota secondary schools, Kansas churches and California resorts. Recall that when the first Christmas vessel finally sankas even the best of ships will doothers stepped forward to carry on the tradition.