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Review of Eastland: A New Musical

By Lawrence Bommer
Chicago Stage Style
June 17, 2012

On July 24, 1915 there was only one thing that the excited employees of the huge Western Electric telephone-making factory (mostly women and their kids, Czech immigrants living in Cicero) wanted.  They were looking forward to a fun-filled, long-awaited Sunday excursion on Lake Michigan and a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.  Horrifically, their dangerously crowded (1,000 more passengers than the 1,500 allowed and more souls than the Titanic carried) and poorly balanced lakeboat (its center of gravity was far too high) never left the Clark Street dock on the Chicago River.

At least the inundation of the Titanic, which also had a preponderance of working-class victims, was slow enough to give its victims a chance to save their lives.  But, three years later, the S.S. Eastland went down in two minutes, compared to the White Star liner’s 2 hours and 20 minutes.  Out of nowhere on a beautiful summer morning, the SS Eastland suddenly rolled over, according to witness Jack Woodford, “like a whale going to take a nap.”  It’s apocryphal legend that the passengers made it roll over by rushing too quickly from one side to another to watch a stunt on shore was never established.

The doomed boat was leaning even as the trusting passengers happily boarded.  Suddenly too top-heavy to stay afloat, the lake cruiser leaned one way, then lumped over on the other side, capsizing and trapping 844 passengers and crew 20 feet below the fetid and polluted river.  They didn’t stand a chance.  Ironically, because of the Titanic’s man-made disaster, the Eastland carried too many lifeboats, which, along with a newly poured concrete deck, made the ship far weightier than its hull could support.  It remains the greatest nautical shipwreck on the Great Lakes.  Shamefully, the four company officers of the flagrantly negligent Michigan Steamship Company and the resignedly indifferent Captain Pedersen were acquitted of blame.  But their trial proved that the poorly constructed ship was mishandled, as water ballast was recklessly shifted to the port side.

Lookingglass Theatre Company, which has already commemorated our Great Fire of 1871, now brings big-hearted compassion to this river tragedy.  As with that sprawling horror, this world premiere by Lookingglass artistic director Andrew White, with a folk-flavored score by Ben Sussman and Andrew Pluess, humanizes the event by concentrating on three blue-collar lives caught up in the fatal foundering.  A dozen actor/singer/performers suggest the sheer weight of life that turned to death in an instant.  It’s performed under a huge Chautauqua-like tent (with the audience in pews), whose covering will be stripped away to suggest the ship’s bare superstructure.

The 90-minute action is concentrated on a platform full of trap doors with water compartments to suggest the submerged vessel.  An anthem proclaims their excitement over the excursion, followed by flashbacks to the lives they’d leave behind forever.  A constant series of waltz-like songs chronicle the subplots of a married factory girl’s illicit romance with an adoring grocer (reminiscent of Julie Jordan in “Carousel”); a Norwegian family of four whose daughter is the last to be rescued from the hold; and Reggie, the “human frog,” a volunteer diver with powerful lungs who retrieved 40 corpses and rescued some live people. 

A coroner (Lawrence DiStasi) comments on the challenge of dealing with so many sudden corpses.  There’s a serious song about swimming—and the need to know how.  The plaintive ballad “Today I Die Alone” is balanced by the bittersweet finale, “Only The River Remains,” a sardonic statement about America’s forgotten tragedy (which is also the title of the book by Jay Bonansinga that inspires White’s retelling).

Though it’s wrong to single out anyone from a seamless ensemble who play the instruments as much as recreate these lost Chicagoans, athletic Doug Hara deserves special credit as the “human frog,” an unsung hero who unhesitatingly dove into the mucky river to try to save lives.  His twirling from a harness poetically suggests his dangerous descents into the depths of the stricken ship.  That’s why it’s weird and mean that Harry Houdini appears to mock this civilian Samaritan because he couldn’t hold his breath as long as the daredevil illusionist.

The one possible problem here is the mercurial plot.  Too often the storyline jumps from past exposition to the details of the disaster, then finally settles down to deliver a  denunciation of the stupidity that let this happen.  But there’s no denying Lookingglass’ earnest and sterling conviction and commitment to what will soon be a Chicago classic. 

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