Based on a true and tragic story from Chicago history, Lookingglass Theatre’s “Eastland” l (running through July 29) launches in familiar fashion.
We get a troubadour-esque musical prelude, an introduction to the optimistic innocence of passengers out for a 1915 pleasure cruise on the Chicago River, and we have the hindsight opportunity to tsk tsk at the arrogance of its captain, who doesn’t have the nautical foresight to see how the added weight of more passengers will influence the ship’s ballast.
We meet some characters—sketches, really—brought to life by a solid Chicago cast. And it feels like we are in for a trip through a lower-budget, regional version of Broadway’s “Titanic” musical.
But Eastland soon reveals itself to be something very different: A musical with the skill to stir the soul and the guts to question whether or not we have one.
When the minimal scenery dramatically changes and the body count rises, we are plunged into matters far more unsettling than iceberg-dodging. And the talented folks at the Tony-Award-winning Lookingglass aren’t about to throw in cheap romance or sentiment to mitigate the reality of the disaster.
A hero? Yes, this show sort-of has one in a supporting role. But he exists in a real world where even jaw-dropping acts of courage and selflessness are quickly forgotten while showboating celebrities (here personified by Harry Houdini) are burned into the public consciousness. I don’t know about you, but I can’t name any of the heroic people who ran into the World Trade Centers.
If I’m making “Eastland” sound grim, well, the subject matter undeniably is. It also suffers from a book whose dialogue too often over articulates (Its characters are far more effective in their less verbose scenes). But that’s mitigated by stunning design—including haunting sound effects, sudden and dramatic lighting shifts, and rich costume design abetting a breathtaking set. (If you go, make sure to get tickets with a head-on view rather than the ones on the side of the stage.)
Clocking in at a tight-but-never-rushed 90-plus minutes, “Eastland”–theatrically thrilling, profoundly moving, and boldly presented–is just one more reminder that the best way for Hoosiers to see great, groundbreaking theater isn’t to fly to New York—it’s to hop a bus up to Chicago.