#135. On July 24, 1915, my great grandma was joining friends on a Western Electric summer boat outing. She was running late and arrived after the S.S. Eastland tipped over. It was docked on the Chicago River. 2,500 passengers were on board. 800+ people lost their lives, including 22 families.
Lookingglass Theatre presents the world premiere of EASTLAND: A NEW MUSICAL. The Titanic is a well-known maritime tragedy. Throughout the world, people know about the “unsinkable” ship that hit an iceberg in 1912. A few years after that, another ship catastrophe kills over eight hundred people but it’s long forgotten. Even in its hometown, the Eastland disaster is not a well-known chapter in Chicago history. Is it because the boat was filled with blue-collar, immigrant families? Would the past be remembered differently if affluent folks like the Palmers, Fields, Burnhams had been onboard? What value must be placed on a life for it to be unforgettable? This shameful oversight in Chicago memories is finally being remedied. EASTLAND: A NEW MUSICAL is a haunting and compelling remembrance.
Playwright Andrew White fictionalizes the facts to pull us in hook, line and sinker. White engages with believable characters that struggle with life before and during the incident. As a woman treads water, she has a flashback to a chance meeting of a soulmate. A young girl waits to be rescued and remembers her father teaching her to swim. A self-proclaimed frogman competes with Houdini’s underwater record as he recovers bodies. An undertaker arrives on the scene and is overwhelmed by death. WOW! These are powerful glimpses at people reacting to life. Under the expert direction of Amanda Dehnert, the ensemble is sublime. They captivate with authenticity. There is a real humanity that tethers me to their circumstance. I know, care and worry about these characters. The actors are exceptional. And they are not just acting. They sing and play instruments. The band is ever-present along the dock. The musicians/actors take on and off the crew uniform to change character. And their music, led by Malcolm Ruhl, is incredible. I want to get the soundtrack. There is a catchy blues-grass number that tells the history of the Chicago River. A gravelly-voiced Michael Barrow Smith strums and sings us down the river and Tiffany Topol adds in her own noteworthy harmony.
The design team adds extraordinary flourish to this moving spectacle. The theatre is set up with wooden pews that contrast the tent-like cocoon. The actual stage is a simplistic planked dock. Trap doors abruptly swing open with a character hanging on. The stuck-under-the-boat illusion is effective dramatic moments. Another imaginative visual has Doug Hara diving to rescue a woman. Hara does aerial work behind a well-lit sheer backdrop. The effect is thrilling and aesthetic. But the imagery that is disturbingly fantastic is how the dead are immortalized in my mind. An actor is given a body tag and then their wet identical clothing is hung from the ceiling. The increasing apparitions mar my senses. I will never forget EASTLAND.
The only thing I didn’t like about this show is the name. EASTLAND: A NEW MUSICAL is not your mama’s showtunes. EASTLAND alone steers this commanding performance to the past. I’m already making plans for a return trip. EASTLAND is a voyage not to miss!
A woman paddling life with her own sea captain, Scooby describes it with ‘calamitous, grievous, forgotten.’
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission
At Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan
Written by Andrew White
Music by Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess
Musical direction by Malcolm Ruhl
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays at 7:30pm
Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 3pm
Thru July 29th
Buy Tickets at www.lookingglasstheatre.org