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Musical about Eastland disaster runs deep at Lookingglass

By Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun-Times,
June 17, 2012

It is an unmitigated thrill to be present at the birth of a transcendent work of theater. And “transcendent” is the very best way of describing “Eastland,” the fiercely original and wholly transfixing balladlike musical that received its world premiere Saturday at Lookingglass Theatre.

With its seamlessly meshed book and lyrics by Andrew White, music by Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess, and direction by Amanda Dehnert, this is a haunted and haunting show. Born out of early 20th century Chicago history, it might be viewed as the watery companion piece to Lookingglass’ earlier production about the Great Chicago Fire. But it is far more than that.

“The whole damn thing is over far faster than we know,” says one of the characters, speaking of the rapid-fire nature of each and every human life. And nothing drives home this notion of the fragility of existence better than a mass catastrophe.

This show conjures the tragic fate of the many immigrant workers and their families who, early on the morning of July 24, 1915, boarded the S.S. Eastland (moored on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets), with the expectation of enjoying a rare, fun-filled summertime outing to Michigan, all underwritten by the Western Electric plant in Cicero where they worked. When the dangerously overloaded and structurally unsound boat rolled on its side, 844 of the 2,500 passengers were drowned or crushed.

The story brings to mind such widely disparate events as the sinking of the Titanic, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the many natural disasters that have struck our planet in recent years. A rueful, aching reminder of all that can be left undone and unsaid, it also calls to mind Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

“Eastland” is a story about mortality (there is a heartstopping eloquence in the formless, dripping-wet outfits of the dead that are lifted up on hooks). Yet a good part of its magic also comes from the way it bestows a touch of immortality on the many unknown souls who perished on the river that flows (in astonishingly engineered reverse direction) through our city.

The actual calamity that befell the Eastland is conjured through the most extraordinary stagecraft and acrobatics. But it is the way in which the lives of the doomed and the saved, the rescued and the rescuers, the heroes and the villains are threaded together that is even more wondrous. The storytelling and the spectacle could not be more expertly interwoven, with all the trademarks of the Lookingglass style in full force.

Among the characters are Bobbie (the enchanting Claire Wellin), a bit of a contrarian at 14, who boards the Eastland along with her sister (the very appealing Tiffany Topol), her mother (Christine Mary Dunford) and her uncle (Lawrence E. DiStasi, who also has a hypnotic turn as a mortician).

There also is the dreamily romantic Ilse (Monica West, a delicate, redheaded beauty who is a remarkably subtle and expressive actress). The mother of an adored 7-year-old son, she is locked in a tedious factory job and dull marriage, and briefly engages in a blissful flirtation with a gently seductive grocer (Erik Hellman in a beautifully understated portrayal).

The principal hero comes in the form of Reggie (played by the marvelous actor-stuntman, Doug Hara), a self-described “human frog,” who, despite his astonishing efforts to dive down and recover the living and dead, will never win the fame of his nemesis and alter ego, Houdini (the ever-sharp Derek Hasenstab). Far less heroic is the man who angrily refuses to play the villain — the Eastland’s Captain Pedersen (Michael Barrow Smith, who also serves as the show’s acerbic balladeer).

White’s writing, whether spoken or sung, is pure poetry. He has created a masterful, supremely economical 95-minute libretto that runs the gamut of emotions from elation to terror. And the Sussman-Pluess score echoes and enlarges upon those emotions with an uncanny synchrony.

Dehnert’s direction, full of sublimely ingenious flourishes, is at once intimate and operatic in scale. And the ensemble of musician-actors (which also includes music director Malcolm Ruhl, Jeanne T. Arrigo and Scott Stangland) is completely integrated into the storytelling.

Dan Ostling’s set — a tent fit for a prayer vigil that at one point dramatically bursts open to reveal the steely frame of the Eastland — is a marvel, heightened by Mara Blumenfeld’s fine period costumes, Christine A. Binder’s award-worthy lighting, and the shattering sound design of Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli.

All in all, the kind of work that continues to make this city an epicenter of theater.

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