It's a very rare thing when a beautiful, complex and emotionally stirring new musical comes along. Usually, such things hit one or two of the marks well. But with Eastland, which uses a widely overlooked tragedy involving the capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River as a jumping off point (no pun intended), writers Andrew White (book), Andre Pluess (music) and Ben Sussman (lyrics) make a landmark debut in a soul-shattering production at Lookingglass Theatre that finally gives a voice to these unsung everyday heroes.
Overshadowed by the sinking of the grand ship Titanic three years prior, the SS Eastland's freakish accident in 1915 is every bit as harrowing, if not as, well, overtly fascinating. Yes, the Titanic was a marvel of failed modern engineering that resulted in the death of dignitaries, socialites and the like after careening into an iceberg, while the SS Eastland, a much smaller ship, unceremoniously tipped over in the muddy Chicago river primarily due to overcrowding, spilling hundreds of passengers, almost entirely working class families, into the dark waters.
But that doesn't mean their stories aren't any less gripping.
The ensemble cast, which doubles as the folksy backup band, brings these stories to life with great heart, humanity and grace. The core of the show is centered by two stories, Bobbie (the haunting Claire Wellin), a spirited young woman who's making the short voyage with her mom, younger sister and step dad/uncle, and Ilse (the delicate Monica West), a melancholy young wife and mother whose heart has been captured by the local shop owner. In another standout role, Dan Hara, as Reggie "The Human Frog," exemplifies the ease with which we ignore the efforts of local heroes.
White's deliberately disorienting book violently shifts between character backstory and tragedy, keeping you on edge, and director Amanda Dehnert establishes a communal, ghostly tone. And, without giving too much away, Dan Ostling's scenic design provides a perfectly timed visual surprise that simply takes your breath away, elevating the show from exquisite to extraordinary.
If there's any weakness in this deeply admirable new work, it's pacing. The show seems hesitant at the beginning as well as during the final moments, where it stretches its emotional core a bit too thin (in other words, the show seems like it wants to end about three different times before the final blackout). But the good easily balances out these faults of this revelatory new musical.
"Eastland" plays through July 21 at Lookingglass Theatre. More information here.