The Christmas Schooner, Bailiwick Repertory, and Prairie Lights, Stage Left Theatre, at Theatre Building Chicago. This time of year, theater companies try to carve a place for themselves in our holiday traditions. Consider John Reeger and Julie Shannon's eight-year-old The Christmas Schooner and the one-year-old Prairie Lights, a musical by Susan Lieberman, David Rush, and Rosalie Gerut. Though neither show is bad, both are bland, suggesting theaters believe that during the holiday season audiences have no desire for complexity or nuance.
The Christmas Schooner, directed by David Zak, clearly espouses the Christian idea that the true joy of Christmas is found not in riches but in service to others, as a ship's captain decides to brave Lake Michigan in the 1880s to bring Christmas trees to German immigrants in Chicago. The singing in this year's sailing is strong, but the acting is only capable. Few scenes offer feelings of anticipation, anger, or pain that don't feel forced. And regrettably the onboard scenes of danger are less immediate and urgent than they've been in the past, due in part to Eric Appleton's new set but especially to Jared Moore's over-the-top lighting. Still, the Schooner is more seaworthy than its next-door neighbor, addressing well the cold realities of death and of immigrants adapting to a new life.
Set 20 years later, Prairie Lights is an earnest musical about two Jewish orphans sent to Nebraska to live with a new family. In their first three weeks there, they persuade their new parents to proudly reclaim their Jewish heritage and teach the whole town about the true spirit of Hanukkah. The first act is slow, revealing that several characters bear wounds from the past or are in denial. But in the end, all problems are solved as easily as in an after-school special. In David M. Schmitz's staging, the actors run on- and offstage throughout the second act as if this might mask the script's lack of urgency and credible character transformations or get us more excited about the unmemorable songs.