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Eastland: A New Musical

This curious, frequently moving show focuses on the people who were killed in the famed 1915 ship disaster. logo
A scene from Eastland
(© Sean Williams)
In July, 1915, the S.S. Eastland, a Lake Michigan cruise ship, rolled onto its side in the Chicago River in only 20 feet of water, killing 844 people mostly trapped in cabins below-decks. You can Google the "Eastland Disaster" for details, because the why, what, and where are not the concerns of Eastland: A New Musical, now premiering at Lookingglass Theatre. Instead, the show -- which is frequently moving but rarely exciting -- offers haunting impressions of some of the people caught in the disaster.

Intriguingly, Eastland isn't a period piece. With the exception of costumes (Mara Blumenfeld in full shirtwaist/Gibson Girl mode) there's nothing about the physical production that says "1915." The same holds true for the score by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, which is broadly folkloric and favors ballad forms.

Their contrapuntal and chorale writing is quite amazing in the few numbers (not specifically named in the program) where it reaches full flower, such as the chorus "Only the river remains." Most of the show is underscored in some way by acoustic string instruments and piano, and the tunes don't stop to allow for applause. The score and show simply aren't built that way.

As for the book, author Andrew White wants Eastland to reflect the connections of the blue-collar, immigrant community, as the 2500-plus passengers that day all were employees of the vast Western Electric Company (builder of Bell Telephone equipment), most of them Eastern Europeans. As such, his focus is on a few real people, a few fictional ones, and the patterns of love, loss, longing and family which the disaster interrupted.

In director Amanda Dehnert's ethereal staging, people float before you and drift in and out of Christine A. Binder's pools of light, with dripping-wet clothing hauled up to dry representing the dead. Meanwhile, the audience is seated in church pews within a Chautauqua tent.

These clearly-intentional choices make Eastland a curious work. You may leave with musical impressions, but you won't hum a tune. And you certainly will remember the poor boy whose body lay unclaimed for weeks or "the human frog" who held his breath like Houdini to dive again and again for the quick and the dead, but you won't leave with much understanding of the tragic event itself.

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