By Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich
Based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffman
Music by Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics by Jake Minton
Directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley
Produced by the House Theatre of Chicago
At the Chopin Theatre, Chicago
A Very Hipster Christmas
I’d like to start off by saying that every hipster who lives in Wicker Park, Pilsen, and Logan Square should see this production immediately; after that, the scattering of hipsters in Lakeview, Wrigleyville, and the rest should hop on board. Also, pretty much everyone else should see it, too.
We’re all more or less familiar with E.T.A. Hoffman’s story about a nutcracker that comes to life and helps his sister defeat the accursed Rat King, whether from the original story, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, or sheer cultural osmosis. But, as so many of the great stories are, The Nutcracker is also prone to reinvention, which is what the House Theatre has done here. This is not, strictly speaking, a new piece: it was first performed at the Steppenwolf in 2007; but it has been remounted year after year to high praise. And one can easily see why. The storytelling is infectious. A happy equilibrium is struck between straight acting, sheer exuberance, and clever winking at the audience. To call this a children’s show would miss the point; to call it a Christmas show would too, although to a lesser extent. It is, after all, about saving Christmas. But more than anything it’s a good time, and certainly gets you in the mood for what can otherwise be a soul-crushing shopfest that has now started to infest even Halloween. You can’t feel miserly about Christmas after this show; and this is coming from someone who strongly believes that any and all talk of Christmas should come after Thanksgiving. But in this case, one doesn’t mind so much.
The celebration starts off feeling like a Bing Crosby Christmas special come to life, the players all a-hustle and a-bustle, chatting with each other, with the audience, grinning from ear to ear. It is the annual Christmas party, and family and friends are eagerly awaiting the return of Fritz, the soldier-son returning from war. There seems little point in rehashing the story, and it’s the presentation and invention that are remarkable here. First, there’s the clever double-casting of friends as the toys that come to life to aid Clara and of family as the troublesome rats. There is an effortless whimsy that pervades the production. The dialogue is cute and funny in that all-ages, something-for-kids-and-adults sort of way, like the Adam West Batman TV series, the original Shrek and the cartoon Freakazoid! all were. The sort of “Wait, is this a kids show? Can they say that?” things that fly right over the tykes’ heads. There’s also an unselfconscious self-consciousness. This sounds paradoxical, yes. Okay, so occasionally the characters on stage acknowledge that they’re in a play, they break the fourth wall; and yet they do it so guilelessly, so – again – unselfconsciously that they pull it off.
The incidental music is really good, as well. It underscores the action and makes a large portion of the play a melodrama in the most classical and best sense of the word. And occasionally the actors burst into song. Like you do during Christmas. The songs are largely fun, if a little too syrupy-sweet; the lyrics are corny, but that’s okay in this situation, right? At one point the rats sing a song that’s a cross between “London Calling” by The Clash and The Cure’s “Lullaby” with a hint of vaudeville thrown in. There are also two songs that feature the ukulele – one even had an 8-string tenor uke – the very definition of a hipster instrument. But they sound quite nice.
Really, this is a bit of a perfect Christmas show. It’s fun, sweet, poignant, funny, whimsical, but more than anything it’s a great experience. Seriously, try to get in before the hipsters buy all the seats.
Reviewed on 11.13
For full show information, visit TheatreInChicago.
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