The Nutcracker at the House Theatre of chicago

Book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperichhouse theatre of chicago

Music by Kevin O’Donnell

Lyrics by Jake Minton

Based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Rapley

Produced by The House Theatre of Chicago

At The Chopin Theatre, Chicago

The House Theatre’s Nutcracker is a Magical Retelling

Let’s be honest, the holidays can be pretty awful for a lot of people. On the surface alone, the intense advertising by companies to convince you that they have exactly what you need to prove you love those around you is relentless. Children are hooked on such colorful advertising, leading to unreasonable expectations. For those in temperate climates, there’s the weather, too, which is unbearable. It results in high heating prices for many, and, for many others, life threatening conditions for those who have no place to go. There’s a lot to dislike about this time of year. Those who are seasonally affected might be asking themselves “Where can I go to find entertainment that will convince even me that there is something good about this time of year?”

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For those looking for a honest to goodness pick-me-up, a piece of entertainment that has a heart and spectacle, I invite you to see The House Theatre of Chicago’s The Nutcracker. The play begins full of holiday cheer as family and friends gather for an annual Christmas party. This year’s party is particularly special, because the eldest son of the family, Fritz (Shaun Baer), is returning home from service in the Marines. Unfortunately, the family is not greeted with Fritz’s arrival, but instead another serviceman and a flag. The family quickly withdraws, the decorations are taken down, and the family goes into mourning.

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A year passes, and the family isn’t feeling very celebratory. Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff), a relative of the family, arrives unexpectedly with a plan to change all of that. He arrives with a gift for the daughter of the family, Clara (Jaclyn Hennell); a nutcracker. Drosselmeyer crafted the nutcracker himself, and it bears a striking resemblance to Clara’s brother, Fritz. Through the nutcracker, Clara gains access to a world where her toys are alive and a looming, actionable threat exists. Rats are trying to ruin Christmas, and it’s up to Clara and her toys to save Christmas and destroy the Rat King!

Through this fantasy world, Clara comes to terms with the death of her brother, and her family is able to once again celebrate the holidays. If the story sounds lofty and heavy, that’s because it is. It’s a daring challenge that authors Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich propose to actors and audience alike, but the play succeeds masterfully. The tonal shifts are successful largely due to the effortless performance by Jaclyn Hennell. As Clara, Jaclyn leads us from heartache to absurdity, the latter assisted by excellent performances by Shaun Baer, Andrew Lund, Michael E. Smith, and Krystal Worrell, who play her toys who come to life. The rest of the cast is spectacular, too. Erica Ratcliff and Paul Fagen play Clara’s parents, Martha and David, and they ground the play in a reality full of nuanced family conversation. Karl Potthoff as Drosselmeyer is perfect. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

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The play is riveting on a technical level, too. The scenic design by Collette Pollard is fantastic. Near the end of the play, the multi-use stage truly transforms into something magical. Using the black-box like stage, Rommy Rapley’s Choreography is fantastic, and the actors perform it effortlessly. The use of the space is excellent and varied. The sound and lighting design is of note, too. There is often use of off-stage space, which enhanced by the 360 degree sound design. My only complaint is that, during musical numbers, it was often hard to hear some of the actors lines, which is perplexing, considering every actor was miked. 

In the end, this modern re-telling of The Nutcracker is equal parts fun, touching, and, dare I say it, magical. In fact, as is common in holiday stories, magic is a focal point in the play. Is magic real? Does a belief in magic do harm? The House Theatre of Chicago’s Nutcracker left me believing that, perhaps, magic is real. The magic of kindness, hope, and love, is deeply powerful. A wonderful message from a wonderful holiday play.

Highly Recommended

Matthew Wrobel

Date Reviewed: November 16, 2014

For more info checkout The Nutcracker House theater page at theatreinchicago.com

At The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago, IL, call 773-769-3832, www.thehousetheatre.com, tickets $25-45, $10 Student and industry same-day discounted tickets available, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays-Sundays at 7pm, Sundays at 3pm, running time is 2 hours including a 15 minutes intermission, through December 28, 2014