Theater Review

'Schooner' Falls Short in Evoking the Spirit of Christmas

Rick Wathen, center, portrays a 19th-century sea captain in the Port Tobacco Players' production of
Rick Wathen, center, portrays a 19th-century sea captain in the Port Tobacco Players' production of "The Christmas Schooner," based on actual events. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Lynn Follmer Thorne
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 1, 2005

The Port Tobacco Players set sail for the holidays with their production of "The Christmas Schooner."

Directed by Keith Linville, this family musical offers some feel-good moments and reminds us not only to count our blessings, but also to share them. Unfortunately, the production stops short of really making us feel the spirit of Christmas.

Written by John Reeger, the script is based on historical events and tells the story of 19th-century sea captain Peter Stossel and his family, who live on Lake Michigan. Stossel learns that German immigrants in Chicago have no Christmas trees available to remind them of their homeland.

Believing that you can't have Christmas without the tannenbaum , Stosell decides he must make the dangerous winter journey by boat to deliver fir trees to Chicago. Aware of the risk, his wife tries to discourage him, but ultimately she understands -- and shares -- his drive.

As Captain Stossel, Rick Wathen is quite likable, but he never really comes across as a sea captain who would risk such a daring mission. However, his vocals are well suited to the style of music, in stark contrast to those of Lisa Kay Morton, who plays his wife. Her voice at times overpowers the songs.

Dave Bayles does a good job as Gustav, but his thick German accent is sometimes difficult to understand. Bayles and Morton play off each other well as father and daughter-in-law, but we fail to feel the connection between Captain Stossel and his wife. Their relationship seems lacking, which makes it harder to believe her grief at the events that come later.

Supporting cast members fare a bit better. Patrick Wathen turns in a notable performance as Young Karl, amusing us at just the right times without stealing the focus. As Older Karl, Matthew Reckeweg brings energy to the role and performs one of the show's better songs, "Hardwater Sailors." Amy Wathen Cooksey also deserves recognition for her portrayal of Martha.

The score by Julie Shannon is largely forgettable. With just a piano for accompaniment, the songs don't grab our attention and are out of our heads as soon as the last note is sung. That's not to say there aren't some pretty harmonies and some strong voices in this production, but the music doesn't captivate overall. One exception is the song "The Blessings of the Branch," a sweet melody passionately performed.

There is minimal choreography by Brooke Howells and Randy Tusing, and we wish there was opportunity for more. Despite limited space, the dancers' enthusiasm was evident and enjoyable.

Set designer John Merritt had his hands full with this show. Merritt built a boat onstage that rivals anything you might see docked at Solomons. The downside is that, with several other set pieces on stage throughout the performance, the cast is left with little room to maneuver, and the result feels a bit cramped.

However, the effect when the boat appears to be tossed about (with help from lighting by Leslie Wanko) makes the crowding worth it. Unfortunately, Wanko's lighting design and Linville's staging fall flat during the scenes and songs where multiple people have solos. Without proper lighting, it's hard to follow which character is speaking.

The production offers a decent evening of family entertainment, but don't worry if you forget the tissues; you probably won't need them.

Showtimes for "The Christmas Schooner" are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. matinee Sunday, through Dec. 11 at the Port Tobacco Players Theater, 508 E. Charles St., La Plata. General admission, $15; students and seniors, $12. For more information or reservations, call 301-932-6819.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company