What A Do’s “Christmas Schooner” sets sail with tradition and tenderness
SPRINGFIELD, Mich. – When storytellers start to tackle Christmas stories, they often reach for the heart-felt, the miraculous, the stories that center around families and people who embody the Christmas spirit by doing good and bringing joy to others.
What a Do Theatre in Springfield has found a musical that does all those things—plus it is set in a small Michigan town in the 1870s. It’s the kind of heart-warming and emotional story that makes for great Christmas fare. And it makes sense that they are bringing it back for the third time in their company’s history, the first time being the first show in the building where they now perform.
Directed by Randy Wolfe, The Christmas Schooner features an ensemble of choristers whose voices hearken the audience to days of yore with traditional caroling and harmonizing. They are all beautifully costumed by Nancy King and the sights and sounds immediately create the setting of times gone by.
After the initial caroling, the audience is introduced to a family of Swiss and German immigrants, with a mother, Alma Stossel (Betsy King) determined to become American and leave the past behind and the grandfather, Gustav Stossel (Jeff Stierle) wanting to hold on to the traditions of the past. Rounding out the family are young Karl Stossel, age 9, (Ben Perry) and the father, Peter Stossel, (Nicholas Mumma,) who is a schooner captain and lumberjack.
Amidst the joyous Christmas Eve that the Stossel family celebrates along with Peter’s crew, a letter arrives from a relative in Chicago. She shares family news, along with her sadness that they have no Christmas trees in Chicago and her children cannot know the joys of the Tannenbaum. This sets into motion a plan by Peter, a plan opposed by his wife because of how dangerous it is. He will thin out the white pines near where they live and take them on a late November/early December run across Lake Michigan to Chicago. He’ll risk the gales and storms of the Lake with a small crew so that others can enjoy the blessings of Christmas that he and his family enjoy.
The chemistry between King and Mumma help to make this story powerful. They are a devoted couple who are deeply in love. Her anxiety over his safety is real and his innate goodness shines through. They are completely believable as a married couple and this raises the stakes for the story that is being told, especially when the choristers sing a song questioning about what calls a man to the waters, to the dangers of the life aboard a ship.
Perry, who attends fifth grade when he is not on What a Do’s stage, is fantastic as the young son. He manages to move and act as though he is a boy from that period. He fits. He’s also mastered the skills of acting, speaking clearly, moving with intention and always staying in the scene.
Stierle could have doubled for St. Nick – jolly with just a hint of the curmudgeon, delighting in his German traditions and devoted to his family.
These four were the backbone of the play and each of them played their roles with loving tenderness, giving the audience characters to care about and be invested in.
The male and female storytellers were the choristers and played all the other characters who populated the story. They provided the show’s texture and warmth, building the stakes and making this story one that was filled with all the elements that make a Christmas story rich and memorable.
The music was piped through speakers and, especially in the beginning, it was a bit too loud, forcing you to strain to hear the lyrics over the music despite the strong voices of the singers. Samantha Snow’s scenic design worked quite well, filling the home with 19th century trappings and letting the schooner dominate the center of the stage. The theater was eventually filled with the aroma of pines, pulling the audience into the story with yet another element of the senses.
The Christmas Schooner is a beautiful story, one that asks whether traditions are worth risking your life for, especially if it means spreading your own blessings to others who are less fortunate in one way or another. It is a moving story, as Christmas stories should be, and fills you with feelings of hope, love and joy.