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The Good Ship St. Louis
by Philip Boehm
Original Music by Anthony Barilla
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
November 6, 2022

Upstream Theater’s latest production is a World Premiere original, with intriguing subject matter and a strong cast. Based on true events, this show explores the issue of how refugees are treated in times of political upheaval, showing that the more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s a highly ambitious project, and it’s a compelling story with simple but strong production values and a particularly effective ending, although there are a few bumps along the artistic voyage. 

The story is presented with a modern-day framing device, and a few looks at the refugee experience from various times in modern history, focusing much on St. Louis. The main story follows the passengers and crew of the M.S. St. Louis, a German vessel that was carrying many Jewish passengers to Havana, Cuba, in 1939. The ship sparked much controversy and international headlines, and after several countries (including the United States) refused to receive the ship and its passengers, it was eventually sent back to Europe, finally being allowed to dock in Antwerp, Belgium. The story of the ship is interspersed with the modern-day story of Susan (Kari Ely), who upon the death of both of her parents, finds a trove of boxes, documents, pictures, and various items in her attic relating the story of a married couple–the German-born Herbert (Jeff Cummings) and the Polish-born Rosa (Nancy Bell), who were passengers on the ship. The connection between Susan–whose parents were both raised in Irish-American families–and this couple becomes apparent eventually, leading up to a truly poignant conclusion and ending sequence.

In the meantime, we also get to see the stories of other passengers and crew, including sympathetic Captain Schröder; the captain’s steward Leo Jockl (Eric J. Conners), who harbors a secret; and Nazi group leader and second class steward Schiendick (Christopher Hickey), who is a secret spy; and several of the Jewish passengers including Recha (Sarah Burke), and her ailing professor husband Moritz (Tom Wethington), as well as Charlotte (Kathleen Sitzer), who was raised in a well-to-do family. We also get to hear the stories of a few people affected by different conflicts over the years, including Bosnian refugee Jasmin (Conners), who settles in St. Louis; Leyla (Sitzer), a Syrian refugee who settles in Lebanon; and Ukrainian Latin teacher Lidia (Burke), who finds her knowledge of Latin useful as she travels between various countries. There’s also a series of vignettes featuring three characters with similar names in similar situations, reacting to the news of the day in various times and places–Federico/Freddie/Frederick/Fred (Hickey), and Benito/ Benny/Benedict/Ben (Wethington), who discuss the news of the world and sports; and Maria/Marie/Mary/Marisa (Mariand Jagels Felix), who waits tables (or who could, considering the circumstances). It’s a compelling story with perhaps a few too many plots and characters, although the connection to the refugee experience and attitudes toward refugees over the years is an important idea. The structure can get a little muddled and drag at times, although the main story of the M.S. St. Louis remains compelling despite the occasionally clunky presentation, involving projections and titles describing what’s happening at various moments in the story.

I guess the best way to characterize this play in terms of genre is to call it a “sort of musical”. I say “sort of” in that it doesn’t present itself as a musical initially, so the first time characters start singing, it comes across as somewhat jarring, and the songs aren’t as pervasive as they are in most musicals. I guess you could call it a “play with music”, but the songs do drive the plot when they appear, but they are not as strong an influence as they could be. The music is a mixture of original songs by Anthony Barilla and a few traditional songs and popular songs of the era. It’s well-performed by music director Henry Palkes on piano and cellists Coco Wicks and Ethan Edwards, and the actual singing is good, with varying degrees of vocal quality among the cast, although regardless of vocal power, everyone brings a commendable degree of emotion to their songs. 

The most effective story  line is that of the M. S. St. Louis itself, and especially that of Rosa and Herbert, who are played with strong chemistry and poignancy by Bell and Cummings. Ely also makes the most of her somewhat underwritten role as Susan, although she and Bell probably have the single strongest moment in the show, toward the end. There are also memorable performances from Mayer as the conflicted Captain, and Burke and Conners in a variety of roles each, as well as Hickey and Wethington, also in a variety of roles. Everyone gives their all, and the performances are the highlight of the production.

The show also boasts a strong sense of time and place, well-maintained through the means of Laura Fine Hawkes’s well-realized unit set that suggests the deck of the ship, aided by Barilla’s atmospheric music and sound design, as well as Steve Carmichael’s excellent lighting and Laura Hanson’s detailed costumes. Brian McLelland and Mona Sabau provide memorable projections, as well, even though the use of these projections sometimes lends a “classroom instruction” type of air to the proceedings, as the show occasionally errs in the way of telling rather than showing the plight of its characters. 

Even though I do have some quibbles with the structure and presentation of the story, for the most part I find it poignant, thought-provoking, and effective. Especially considering the strong cast and compelling subject matter, this is a promising new play from Upstream Theater. The Good Ship St. Louis may have a bit of a rough journey at times from a storytelling standpoint, but it’s very much a worthwhile one to see. 

Upstream Theater is presenting The Good Ship St. Louis at the Marcelle Theatre until November 20, 2022

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