Eastland: A New Musical

by Andy White
Music by Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Featuring Jeanne T. Arrigo, Lawrence E. DiStasi, Monica West, Erik Hellman
Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago
June 16, 2012 — August 19, 2012 (extended)
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 16, 2012

[This is another one of the five shows I saw in Chicago during the June 2012 summer meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association. Comments about the final few will be combined in a single posting to come.]

Eastland cast. Image by Sean Williams.

Chicago has had its share of natural and man-made disasters that have fed the popular culture and imagination in song, novels, films and otherwise for over 100 years. A fire that swept through much of the young city in the late 1800s, leveling much and allowing for a city-wide structural and conceptual “do over,” is celebrated in song and legend. Politicians have offered fodder in factual and fictional forms — the most recent version in the fiction-inspired-by-fact vein, Boss, is filming a second season for the Starz cable channel, with mayor, political corruption, and much work for fabulous Chicago actors. During my recent Chicago visit I enjoyed a fabulous fictionalized treatment of the themes and situations involved in a police interrogation-torture investigation and scandal of the 1990s entitled My Kind of Town. And to cap off my week of Chicago theatre talk and productions, the Lookingglass Theatre ruminations on the simple lives and group hopes and dreams of workers out for a company sail that turned catastrophic — the Eastland tour boat disaster of 1915. In carefully etched profiles, on stage musicians (actors often pulling double duty), tarps and rigging and magical lighting and water that gives us on-board and underwater heroics and desperation, Lookingglass provides in Eastland: A New Musical a winning and powerful production.

Stage images are magical. Musical images are moving and lyrical and memorable.  Note to producers: please, when presenting musicals and especially when presenting NEW musicals, include a listing of the music by piece, along with the characters presenting each tune, in the playbill for those of us who care about such things to track and to attend and to note for future.  I was disappointed during my performance and am especially disappointed now as I write these words that I am unable authoritatively to write about some ballads by name that were particularly affecting.

In the end, a lovely experience, intensely theatrical, not entirely linearly told as we move back and forth in time to learn about the lives of a few of the working class Eastland’s hopeful holiday passengers that fateful 1915 day.  Dreams crushed and dreams shared, and a few survivors to provide hope for the future.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 30, 2012)

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