Encore Michigan

‘Christmas Schooner’ sails at The Riverbank

Review November 17, 2023 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, MI–Who is ready for a holiday musical that is all about heart, nostalgia and generosity, one that will tug your heart strings, is set mainly in northern Michigan, and is based on a true story?  The Riverbank Theatre in here is performing The Christmas Schooner, a musical which previously graced the Riverbank stage just a few years ago, and has returned to delight pre-holiday audiences again.

Colleen Everitt directs and music directs this show, with book by John Reeger, music and lyrics by Julie Shannon.  The story itself is simple, and does not rely on multiple intersecting storylines or shocking twists.  In the late 19th century, Great Lakes schooner captain Peter Stossel (Mike Martin) lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with his wife Alma (Becky Martin), his father Gus (Frank Bublitz) and son Karl (Jonah Martin). The family originally hails from Germany, and Gus often refuses to speak “American,” to the dismay of Alma, who embraces their new life.

Although the Stossel family, along with Peter’s crew, is able to keep their German traditions alive at Christmas time, Peter’s cousin in Chicago (JM Ethridge) complains in a letter that not a green tree can be found in the city.  That gives Peter an idea:  he will load up his schooner with evergreens from northern Michigan for one final run on the Great Lakes.  He will deliver Christmas trees to Germans in the city who are also longing for their old traditions.

Despite Alma’s misgivings, and the inevitable late season storms common on the lakes, the trip is a greater success than Peter imagined it would be.  The joy and delight of the Chicagoans—not just the Germans, but Irish, Italians, and more—inspire Peter to continue the Christmas tree deliveries year after year, and eventually a teenaged Karl  joins the crew with his father and grandfather.   

In time, a great storm wreaks disaster for the schooner and the family, which must then decide whether continuing their annual deliveries is worth the risk.  Alma decries “If we accept our blessings, we must also accept our pain.”  But an encounter with the lively young Mary Claire (Maddies Giles) in Chicago captures Alma’s heart, and the Christmas spirit wins the day.

Despite the simple nature of the plot, several themes are layered into the story:  old vs. new, risk vs. reward, caution vs. pleasure, and self-sacrifice.  Peter, Alma, Gus, Karl, and the crew members must at times examine their hearts, their motivations and their priorities.

The music in The Christmas Schooner begins as exposition, with many individual characters describing the setting and the nature of the families there. While the individual voices are pleasing, the music picks up strength when the company sings together.  Near the end of Act I, the haunting strains of “What Is It About the Water?” contrasts the desire of sailors to be at sea, with the constant unease of their families waiting at home. The tension of that song then transforms into “The Christmas Schooner,” which layers multiple melodies together in jubilant celebration of the arrival of the Christmas trees in Chicago, to close out the act.  The musical numbers that feature the ensemble of men’s voices are especially satisfying.  The accompaniment by live piano and cello is well-suited to the show.

Visually, the colors on stage are cohesive and striking.  The set and the costumes (Kathy Vertin) are done nearly exclusively in warm, comforting tones of brown, cream and dark red. The sailing crew wears black, brown and cream.  Peter, Alma and Karl, as well as most of the Chicago residents and storytellers, all wear some form of dark red.  The lighting is a warm white, and occasionally a soft red. Greens and blues are reserved for specific scenes: green for the Christmas trees (live trees provided by the local Shea Tree Farm), and blue for lighting effects to represent the lake when the schooner is on the water. When Alma is dealing with disaster she wears black, but young Mary Claire bounces in wearing a bright red cape and reignites joy and love for Alma.

The Christmas Schooner is a delightfully warm story that will strengthen the evergreen spirit of Christmas for adolescents through adults.  It is playing at The Riverbank through November 26, 2023.  For tickets, go to thumbcoasttheaters.com.

Week of 11/27/2023

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