To understand the appeal of “The Christmas Schooner,” which opened this weekend at the Spokane Civic Theatre, it helps to remember why so many people loved the old TV show “The Waltons.”
It portrayed a simple, happy, loving family, in which everyone strove to do the right thing. The Stossel family in “The Christmas Schooner” is like that. You’ll need to leave your jaded cynicism at the door to fully enjoy this sweet and well-done show. Shedding cynicism is not a bad goal at Christmastime.
It was written in 1996, but “The Christmas Schooner” is in many ways an old-fashioned melodrama. It’s about Peter Stossel, who captains a scow on the Great Lakes from his home on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In 1881, he learns from a relative that all of the German immigrants in Chicago are crestfallen because they cannot continue the German tradition of the “tannenbaum” (Christmas tree), because there are few conifers on the prairie. So he resolves to load up his schooner with spruce and fir trees and help all of those families resume their beloved traditions. It’s based on a well-known bit of Chicago historical lore.
The conflict is this: The Great Lakes are treacherous in November and December. Alma, Peter’s wife, is terrified of letting him go, and later, terrified of letting him take their son Karl along. This conflict, while admit- tedly over-melodramatic at times, effectively drives the entire story.
What makes it all work is the sweet, sensitive and unabashedly sentimental direction by Maria Caprile. Her production is loaded with nice directorial touches, the most dramatic of which is a lightning-filled re-creation of a storm at sea (well, inland sea). The crew of the schooner fights through a blizzard on a remarkable, and nearly full-sized replica of the Molly Doone, built by scenic designer David Baker. Sails flap in the gale and spars come crashing down.
An earlier seagoing scene is the impetus for one of two nice transitions staged by Caprile. We see the men of the Molly Doone braving the fog, and then the light shifts to Alma and Karl, safe in their cozy home, reciting Psalm 107 (“He made the storm be stilled and the waves of the sea were hushed).”
The other nice transition comes when Karl, age 9, goes down a trapdoor into the cellar and comes back as Karl, age 16. This is a concise and graceful way to denote the passage of time.
Jared Mola does a nice job as the older Karl, and Hannah Lee, a fifth-grader, is endearing as the younger Karl. Yes, she’s a girl playing a boy, and she pulls it off nicely.
This is an ensemble show, without showy star turns, and Caprile’s ensemble is polished, well-trained and uniformly fine. Tony Caprile (the director’s husband) is especially effective as the gentle and almost too-good-to-be-true Peter. Dennis Craig demonstrates his skills as a character actor by turning old Gustav, the grandpa, into a lovable cross between Santa Claus and Gabby Hayes.
The vocal standout is Heidi Gnos Kuban, who has a powerful, expressive and accurate voice as Alma. She is especially strong in the heartbreaking plea, “Questions” and the closing number, “Blessings of the Branch.”
The music, written by Julie Shannon and directed here by Gary Laing, is largely choral, which gives it an old-fashioned holiday feel. A group of women called The Storytellers – dressed in sumptuous period costumes beautifully designed by Susan Berger and Jan Wanless – serve ably as musical narrators, a kind of Greek chorus.
The music – and actually, the entire play – is propelled by Laing’s terrific piano accompaniment, sometimes pensive, sometimes rollicking. He deserves credit for the overall professionalism of the vocal numbers.
I don’t want to get expectations too high. The show can be a little saccharine at times and the dialogue leans on cliché. At one point, playwright John Reeger trots out the old line, “You can tell a German – you just can’t tell him much.”
But like “Quilters,” another heartland musical based on history, “The Christmas Schooner” gives us a glimpse of a harder, yet somehow simpler and sweeter, time. That’s something people crave at the holidays.