CHICAGO—Currently, the Lookingglass Theatre Company is doing “Eastland: A New Musical,” which is actually closer to a folk opera (written by Andrew White with music by Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess) than a musical. This production offers inventive, collaborative, and transformative theater.
In “Eastland,” we experience a history that many Chicagoans may not even be aware of, despite the fact that the Eastland is a part of Chicago history.
The musical relies on the book “The Sinking of The Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy” by Jay Bonansinga. This script is fictional, but the event did happen. Some of the names in White’s script are of actual people.
The year was 1915, and the S.S. Eastland was sitting on the Chicago River between Clark Street and LaSalle Street, ready to take off on a voyage. It turns out that the ship had more passengers than ever before. It also recently had work done to improve it: The weight of the ship had been increased. This ship was no Titanic, but instead a “working man’s boat.”
People who had traveled from other parts of the world to begin a new life in Chicago came to work at the Hawthorne Plant of Western Electric (the telephone was still new) and perished in what was to have been a company outing for employees and their families.The heavier weight of the ship and the large crowd caused the ship to tilt until it turned over on its side, tossing passengers into the depths of the river, where entire families perished.
Using a series of flashbacks, the story gives us a feeling for the characters by creating some back stories for them.
While specific characters are of great importance, this is truly an ensemble piece. Each actor takes on many roles, and at times, it appears that the cast is much larger than the dozen listed in the program. The musicians are also on the stage.
The ensemble does a masterful job in bringing this story to the intimate stage of the Looking glass. In particular, Chicagoan Michael Barrow Smith is perfect in this folk opera.
Cast members include: Jeanne T. Arrigo, Lawrence DiStasi, Christine Mary Dunford, the very athletic Doug Hara (who plays Reggie, a man who brought up many bodies during this ordeal while holding his breath, reminiscent of Houdini), Erik Heller (who continues to show his versatility), Derek Hasenstab, Malcolm Ruhl (who also serves as musical director), Scott Stangland, Claire Wellin, Tiffany Topol, and the amazing Monica West.
Director Amanda Dehnert also did the musical arrangements. Dan Ostling’s set gives the appearance of a ship. Trap doors are used as well as curtains and dynamic lighting effects by Christine A. Binder. The costumes by Mara Blumenfeld appear to be authentic to the times. The sound by Ray Nardelli and Josh Horvath truly allows the music to flow through the theater with no words ever lost.
I also want to say that the stagehands and technicians who handled the special effects were brilliant in creating the visuals that make this show so special.
821 N. Michigan Avenue
Tickets: 312-337-0665 or www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: Aug. 19