THEATER | At the History Theatre, "The Christmas Schooner" wobbles but stays steady on its course

Photo by Scott Pakudaitis, courtesy History Theatre

Song and family underscore the History Theatre's warm reprise of the holiday musical The Christmas Schooner. Written by John Reeger with music and lyrics by Julie Shannon, this play was last performed at the History Theatre in 2002. It is a charming family entertainment and a viable alternative for families tired of the usual holiday fare.

The show is based on the true story of ships that sailed Lake Michigan during the dangerous months of November and December at the end of the 19th Century to bring evergreen Christmas trees to immigrant German families in Chicago. The story centers on Peter Stossell, a prosperous shipping captain, and his German-American family.

the christmas schooner, presented through december 19 at the history theatre. for tickets ($28-$32) and information, see historytheatre.com.

The story starts with a letter from the Stossells' cousin Martha. In her letter, Martha laments the shortage of evergreen trees in the Chicago area and her inability to pass on the German Christmas tradition of the Tannebaum tree to her children. Her plight touches the heart of Peter Stossell. With evergreen trees in abundance where the Stossells live, Peter hits on the idea of loading up his ship with evergreens to sell to the German families. The treacherous sailing conditions caused by the uncertainty of the November gales on the Great Lakes provide the underlying drama in the show. Peter's wife Alma is opposed to the venture due to the danger, but Peter feels driven to ignore her pleas to stay home. The overwhelmingly joyous response by the Chicago families receiving the trees leads Peter and his crew to repeat this dangerous journey on a yearly basis.

Patty Nieman, who plays Alma Stossell, gives a captivating acting and singing performance. Her interactions with both the younger version of her son Karl and her father-in-law Gustav provide much of the humor in the show. Fred Wagner, as Gustav Stossell (Peter's father), is another standout playing both the comical grandfather and wise elder. The show has a vibrant ensemble cast but the singing by some performers is uneven.

Erik Paulson's set design is a utilitarian revolving stage that is effective as a home, a ship and a shipyard. Musical Director Andrew Fleser provides a simple, but energetic piano accompaniment to the choral singing in the show. Kathy Kohl's costumes suitably reflect both the time and the season for the show.

Although The Christmas Schooner is an entertaining and endearing family show that avoids undue sentimentality, it is not without its flaws. The songs were pleasant during the performance but do not linger in your mind after the show. The intensity of the story would have been enhanced if some songs were trimmed in length and a couple of superfluous songs in the second act were eliminated. I noticed children getting restless during the performance; a tighter show would alleviate this.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet's complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you'll know who's been naughty and who's been nice.

For more than 30 years History Theatre has produced brave, entertaining explorations of all the histories that make up our diverse community.

30 E. Tenth Street
St. Paul, MN
651-292-4323