at Spokane Civic Theatre through Dec. 16
At the Civic, The Christmas Schooner depicts the hardships others have endured to keep Christmas generosity flowing
In one of its most technically accomplished and well-directed productions in years, Spokane Civic Theatre is presenting an affecting Christmas musical reminding viewers of some of our shared values: community, self-sacrifice, the continuity of tradition. Displaying direction, costumes, sets and lights that are exemplary, along with a script and acting that have more strengths than weaknesses, The Christmas Schooner (at Spokane Civic Theatre through Dec. 16) is a Christmas show that deserves to be replayed in future seasons.
In the 1880s, a lakeboat captain way up at the top of Lake Michigan — up on the Upper Peninsula, where they have plenty of evergreen trees — gets the idea of ferrying thousands of Christmas trees to the German immigrants of Chicago, 300 ice-encrusted miles away.
Director Maria Caprile repeatedly underscores the value of community in this bittersweet Christmas musical (written in 1996 by John Reeger, with music and lyrics by Julie Shannon). First, townspeople look on as an immigrant family squabbles over how best to assimilate; then they enact the family’s stories, giving viewers a visual equivalent of the narration. In scene after scene — and with just a cast of 18 — Caprile deploys crowds and narrator-figures to create a sense of communal effort, communal concern.
In a cast that’s mostly solid in most of the leading roles, Dennis Craig stands out as the lovable/irascible grandfather who loves all things German. Craig tells jokes, gets testy, cuddles with his grandson, mans the starboard rigging, consoles the grieving and just generally attracts attention wherever he ranges onstage. As the ship captain, Tony Caprile (the director’s real-life husband) looks calm and commanding in a pea coat — gentle with his wife, fair to his crew, but determined to do what he thinks right.
There’s also lots to admire in the scenic and lighting designs of David Baker: Magical effects at the appearance of the Christ child; a detailed country-house interior; an entire half-scale masted ship that floats into view with a crew of six. There’s an amazing pulling-into-dock sequence with shouted nautical terms and the fog rolling in, then an entire wooden gangway sliding onstage with onlookers and a great sense of surprise and joy over the first delivery of Christmas trees to Chicago.
In the costume designs of Susan Berger and Jan Wanless, there are a lot of women wearing bustles ornate fabrics and little boys in worsted-wool knickers, evoking both the formal and casual styles of 125 years ago.
Up front, the piano player in the bowler hat is musical director Gary Laing, who delivers the simplicity of Shannon’s unaccompanied piano score in haunting fashion, particularly in “What Is It About the Water?”
The Schooner is the kind of musical that actually begins one song with “Put down the strudel, Mrs. Stossel” — it sounds like the setup for a bad German vaudeville gag — but then turns the scene into an affectionate husband-and-wife dance. There are, however, some noticeable flaws in the mix. Some chorus members are less accomplished than others, and there were noticeable vocal bobbles in the show’s sung prologue. A song about a father’s affection for his son, “When I Look at You,” seemed flat — partly because its melody wasn’t distinctive and partly because it told viewers what they already knew. At a couple of junctures, Reeger’s book of the musical situates songs after a scene’s emotional climax has already been reached; the first part of “Hardwater Sailors,” for example, tells us how much a young man wants to venture out on the inland sea — right after we’ve heard him making that abundantly clear.
It’s difficult to dramatize an inland sea voyage, its hardships and tedium, though both The Schooner’s script and the Civic’s actors did remarkably well in a cramped space and short time frame. Even harder is depicting the monotony of those left at home doing nothing but waiting for the sailors to return. And yet director Caprile pulls off the feat of creating interest in a quilting bee — for the characters, it’s just a way to pass time, but Caprile maintains tension by blending the women’s steadfastness and resentment.
As the captain’s wife, Heidi Gnos Kuban scurries about her kitchen with authority; she was too rushed and less effective, however, in brief scenes demonstrating her worry and anger when her husband leaves and relief when he returns. In Act Two, however, when misfortune strikes, Gnos Kuban responds with near-operatic intensity during a pair of blended solos: her own “Questions” and Craig’s stentorian reprise of “When I Look at You.” Like so much in The Christmas Schooner, the mix of sadness and resilience undercuts sentimentality with inspiring results.
Director Caprile frames the second act by twice deploying her cast in the aisles. First her storytellers sing in simple fashion about the joys of Christmas, even as they make an appeal on behalf of the poor in “Song of the Hungry Peasants.” And the reappearance of singers out in the audience in the finale makes an onstage ritual fully interactive for playgoers. After the rush-rush of a busy work day, The Christmas Schooner’s emphasis on community and sharing put me right into a holiday mood. It might do the same for you.