In 1912, the Rouse Simmons, also known as “The Christmas Tree Ship,” sank in Lake Michigan off the coast of Wisconsin during a November storm. Now, 100 years later, What A Do Theatre in Springfield, Mich. is presenting “The Christmas Schooner,” a musical written by John Reeger and Julie Shannon, first performed in 1995 and based off of the true story of the Rouse Simmons.
This marks the second consecutive year that What A Do has done a production of “The Christmas Schooner.” Last year’s production was the first What A Do production in their current building, and now that the theatre has been around and gotten the hang of things, chances are this year’s production will be bigger and better.
“We had to put this show together from first reading after casting ‘til opening night and build the theatre out of a warehouse that used to be a construction building in four weeks,” said Jeff Stierle, who plays Gustav Stossel.
Stierle said that rehearsals last year had to be done outside of the regular rehearsal spacedue to theatre construction inside the building.
“It’s a satisfying thing to see how far it’s come in a year,” Stierle said.
“The Christmas Schooner” is the story of a family from Germany that moved to America and represents all the ships that carried Christmas trees to Chicago.
“It was a different time back then,” Stierle said. “The Stossels are atypical of a family back then.”
Elena Hensel, who is part of the ensemble and did a lot of work behind the scenes such as painting and building, noted that the music is entirely piano-based, mostly beautiful and simplistic, but complicated at the same time.
“There’s so many different Christmas carols and Christmas themes that are presented throughout the show through the piano part,” Hensel said. “You might not hear it in the vocal singing throughout the show, but it’s in the piano part. There’s carols after carols after carols of known Christmas songs that are playing in the underscore.”
One big change from last year is the set itself.
“We’ve got an actual ship on stage and a shipwreck scene,” Stierle said. “We didn’t have this last year, actually. The improvement in the scenery makes it worth coming, if you’ve seen it before, makes it worth coming a second time to see the higher level this is at now.”
The ship was painted by Hensel and Sue Ryan, and Hensel stressed the crucial importance of the stage design, thanks to What A Do’s extremely intimate venue.
“There has to be so much more detail, but we can’t get nitpicky,” Hensel said. “We had to be careful to add a lot of detail, but not too much because we don’t have time.”
“The Christmas Schooner” can be seen Nov. 30, Dec. 1, 8, 14, and 15 at 8 p.m., Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. for “Pay What You Can” night, and December 8 at 3 p.m., where all tickets are $10. General admission is $20, but senior citizens, students and military get in for $18 with proper identification. Tickets can be purchased at the What A Do Theatre box office, by phone at 269-282-1953 or online at www.whatado.org/Reservations.php.