Entering Lookingglass Theatre for the world premiere of "Eastland: A New Musical" is like stepping into an old-fashioned tent revival.
Beneath billowing fabric stand rows of wooden pews facing a low, wooden plank stage where guitars, a banjo and a bass lean against simple wooden chairs.
"Eastland: A New Musical"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Lookingglass Theater, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. (312) 337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through July 29
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Paid garages nearby
Rating: For middle school and older; subject matter might be unsettling for young children
It feels as if a service is about to start. In a way, it is.
As conceived by Lookingglass, this beautifully composed, exquisitely theatrical meditation on mortality is more than a musical. It's a memorial to the more than 840 people -- working class employees of the Western Electric Company and their families -- who perished July 24, 1915, when the excursion ship SS Eastland they were on rolled onto its side in the Chicago River.
And what a memorial "Eastland" is. Andrew White's book and lyrics -- which affirm the power and poetry of plain speech -- and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's lovingly elegiac score rooted in Americana make for a profoundly moving tribute.
It certainly has more impact than the commemorative plaque located on the south side of the LaSalle Street Bridge, near where the ship capsized between Clark and LaSalle. If they even notice the marker at all, most people likely don't give it a second thought.
Not so with "Eastland." Director Amanda Dehnert's engrossing production kept me perched on the edge of my pew for nearly 90 minutes, and it stayed with me long after I left the theater.
The show -- which alternates flashbacks from the characters' lives with scenes from the unfolding tragedy -- centers on three individuals (two of them based on real people) who boarded the ship bound for Michigan City, Ind., that July morning for a daylong picnic courtesy of Western Electric.
The winsome Claire Wellin plays Bobbie, a likable young girl who's accompanied by her sister Solveig (Tiffany Topol), mother Marianne (Christine Mary Dunford) and uncle Olaf (Lawrence E. DiStasi).
After the ship capsizes, Bobbie finds herself trapped in an air pocket. There she encounters the intrepid Reggie (the nimble Doug Hara), a self-described "human frog" and one-man search team whose attempts to rescue the living result mostly in the recovery of the dead, and whose efforts are interrupted by imagined taunts from Houdini (Derek Hasenstab).
Lastly, there is Ilse (played with quiet desperation by the captivating Monica West), a young mother in a pleasant but passionless marriage who pursues a brief, chaste flirtation with an empathetic grocer played with charming understatement by Erik Hellman.
Like Houdini, whose presence is merely a distraction (Hasenstab's talent notwithstanding), the romantic subplot feels unnecessary, even manipulative -- as if we needed something beyond the terrible loss of life to engage our sympathy. That said, West and Hellman play their scenes with sincerity that makes the contrivance palatable.
The splendid ensemble also includes Jeanne T. Arrigo, Scott Stangland, music director Malcolm Ruhl and Michael Barrow Smith, memorable as the defensive Captain Pedersen who refuses to take responsibility or accept blame for one of the country's worst civilian nautical disasters. Most of the actors play multiple roles, including that of musician under the direction of the accomplished Ruhl.
DiStasi in particular earns kudos for his performance as the undertaker Otto, whose humanity transcends the detachment his profession demands. Topol and Dunford also deserve mention for their affecting, respective cameos as a doomed Western Electric worker and a grieving grandmother.
A subtle reverence underscores Dehnert's compassionate production, which reflects the director's canny sense of theatrics, something for which Lookingglass is rightly acclaimed. There are moments in this show that touch the soul. Among them: the quietly eloquent "Extraordinary Light," which speaks to unfulfilled desires, and the plaintive "Today I Die Alone" -- during which the victims' sopping clothes are hoisted above the stage. It is a stirring eulogy which concludes an unforgettable show that is an enduring memorial to the doomed souls who perished in the water beneath the LaSalle Street Bridge.