Playwright: book by John Reeger, music and lyrics by Julie Shannon. At: Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Phone: 773-325-1700;$30-$49.50. Runs through: Dec. 31
When is a Christmas play not just a Christmas play? There's no denying that our McGuffin is an object irrevocably associated with the Christian holidaywe're not talking pagan Yule logs or spurious "Hannukah bushes" herebut the story inspired by its rites nevertheless encompasses themes transcending religious and cultural boundaries to address Americans united by their immigrant status, however many generations removed.
Our setting is not Europe or even fairy-tale New York City, but the coast of Lake Michigan, where in 1896, a ship's captain in Manistique, Mich., received a letter from his cousin in Chicago expressing the sorrow of their fellow German immigrants at the scarcity of the tannenbaumsChristmas treesto remind them of the childhoods they left behind. The next year, Captain Stossel braves the winter lake waters to bring evergreens to the city. Over the objections of his wife, this dangerous voyage becomes an annual event, until the fatal day in 1912 that he and his ship are wrecked off Bailey's Harbor in Wisconsin's Door County, leaving his bereaved family to decide whether they will continue his legacy, now thriving far beyond its ethnic origins (reflected in an Irish child's assertion that their tree is "almost as big as Mr. Sabbatini's").
After 12 years' residence in the barnlike auditorium that was the Bailiwick Arts Center mainstage, this likewise homegrown musical by John Reeger and Julie Shannon now resides in the cozy Mercury Theatre. The changes are evident: Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's Wagnerian scenic design has been compressed to fit the former nickelodeon's narrow stage, requiring additional music to facilitate clearance of the modules, and even body-microphones cannot fully overcome the echo generated by the room's exposed-brick walls. On the other hand, Eugene Dizon has assembled an eight-piece orchestra, complete with woodwinds and classical harp, making for a smoother sound to Shannon's intensely-varied array of distinctive melodies.
The most noticeable improvement, however, is the intimacy offered by the tunnel-shaped house, allowing actors filing up the aisles to make eye contact with individual audience members, reducing the distance of the emotional exchange at the heart of all performance. On the evening I attended, seasoned pilgrims and first-timers alike were palpably awash in empathy by the time we were sent on our way with, not only merry you-know-whats, but gentle exhortations to "pass the love along."