George White, Brian Dennehy join forces to support Morgan restoration

Brian Dennehy in “Prince of Whalers” Saturday night at the Mystic Seaport.
Brian Dennehy in “Prince of Whalers” Saturday night at the Mystic Seaport.

Mystic — Mystic Seaport's weeklong celebration of the Charles W. Morgan's anniversary culminated Saturday night with a performance recalling whaling's dramatic legacy and this particular ship's storied past.

Brian Dennehy led the cast in "Prince of Whalers," which was created by George C. White. White, founder of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, also happens to be chairman of the seaport's International Council. Dennehy is a council member.

The Charles W. Morgan arrived at Mystic Seaport 70 years ago, and it now stands as the last remaining wooden whaleship. The seaport is restoring it, and Saturday night's performance raised funds toward that work.

"I've always loved the whole concept of Mystic and what they did here," Dennehy said.

He's known White for years and had been a serious sailor. When the two men discussed doing something to raise money for the Morgan restoration, they originally considered a sound and light show aboard the Morgan. What evolved, though, was the piece done Saturday inside the seaport's duPont Shipyard, where the Morgan work is being done.

While "Prince of Whalers" paid homage to the Morgan, White also believed it honored American enterprise, imagination and intrepid courage.

"Beginning in colonial times, before the 49ers and homesteaders headed west, New Englanders built their ships and went after these gigantic leviathons," he wrote in the program notes. "These mariners brought the stars and stripes around the globe and introduced the spirit of Yankee seamanship, commerce and ingenuity to all whom they met."

White pulled together "Prince of Whalers" from a variety of sources, including work by Coast Guard Academy professor emeritus Jordon Pecile. It melded narration, music and whaling lore, calling upon everything from true stories about the Morgan to excerpts from "Moby-Dick."

For the event, a stage inside the duPont Shipyard was transformed with authentic whaling-ship pieces. One of the Morgan's sails hung as a backdrop, with images of ships and sailors projected on it. Two huge casks served as lecterns of sorts on which the performers could rest their scripts during the reading.

In addition to Dennehy, the actors were Linda Hart, who starred on Broadway in the just-wrapped "Catch Me If You Can" and in "Hairspray"; Joe Grifasi, who was nominated for a Drama Desk award for "The Boys Next Door" and who has been in more than 50 films; and Maria Tucci, who was nominated for a Tony for her work in "The Rose Tattoo."

The stories they relayed in "Prince of Whalers" dealt with whaling itself — and, yes, its dangers. A dramatic segment recalled deaths of various sailors, as a bell mournfully tolled onstage. Another detailed the tragedy of the Essex, which sank after being rammed by a whale; the men aboard were adrift in lifeboats for months.

The Charles W. Morgan's encounter with cannibals earned a humorous recount.

Women were paid their due, as their roles in the whaling world were detailed. Captain's wives sometimes traveled on the ship. Sailor's wives, though, were often left at home. Among the songs that Hart performed was a saucy one about the joys and the freedom of being a sailor's wife.

That number, "A Nantucket Girl's Song," was originally a poem in a journal from Eliza Brock, the wife of a whaling captain. She and three other wives wrote the poem together during time ashore in New Zealand in 1853. Geoff Kaufman, the Mystic Seaport chanteyman who was responsible for the music for "Prince of Whalers," was sent the poem by friends in Nantucket, and he set it to music. "They called it a song, so I thought it deserved a tune," he said.

Besides performing during the show with David Littlefield and Rick Spencer, Kaufman worked with White on where music would work best in "Prince of Whalers."

As for the texts that White culled for the show, Kaufman said, "There's an interesting mix of real history of whaling and a sense of the spiritual and physical lives of the people who were engaged in this trade. There's a pretty impressive sweep. You're taken through a wide span of history."


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