MUST SEETheatre Reviews

The Nutcracker

Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Rapley

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

Book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich

Music by Kevin O’Donnell

Lyrics by Jake Minton

At Chopin Theatre, Chicago

A witty family-friendly adventure to delight the eyes and warm the heart!

In the attic of your mind, where the boxes of Christmas spirit and warm family memories rest awaiting this special time of year, it’s time to rearrange and make room for a new holiday classic. Right there, between the one labeled Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown and above the box of cookie recipes and ornaments. The House Theatre’s reinvention of the classic The Nutcracker tale is a deliriously jolly blend of pathos, humor, and spectacular stagecraft wrapped in a bright paper package that left even this Christmas curmudgeon smiling like a Grinch whose heart just tripled in size.

In an opulent mansion of the present day, an annual Christmas party is getting underway, with various relatives arriving and thrilling to the sight of the splendid house bedecked for the season. A banner over the window welcomes home a wayward guest, Fritz (Kevin Stangler), returning from a conflict abroad. Their festive reveries are turned to sadness when a folded flag and sword arrive in place of the beloved son and brother.

Flash forward one year. Little sister Clara (Paige Collins), her father David (Benjamin Sprunger) and mother Martha (Brenda Barrie) drift about the grand estate, still in a state of mourning and unable to hang even a sprig of mistletoe. Their infamous party is canceled, but no one told the irascible old wanderer Uncle Drosselmeyer. He might just be what the holidays ordered, however. His gift of a nutcracker in the likeness of Fritz begins a magical journey for the young Clara to reclaim not just the spirit of Christmas, but to repair the rifts her brother’s absence has left in her family. At the chime of the bells, he springs back to life, ready to help Clara defeat the evil rats that nest in the darkness between walls and want to keep the brightness of the season at bay forever. Aided by her sock monkey (Johnny Arena), mechanical idea-bot Hugo (Brandon Ruiter) and ditzy dolly Phoebe (Christine Perkins), they’ll fight for their right to cookies, trees, and the power of light over dark.

House Theatre previously enchanted me with their revival of Death and Harry Houdini, and that tradition only continues with this marvelous revival production (originally produced in 2007). It’s a kind of meta-humor, expert timing, puppetry, music, and just downright fun energy that I have only previously experienced with those other master craftsmen, the Neo-Futurists. Calling out any one performance is so difficult because this entire ensemble is brimming with chemistry in a big warm holiday hug that melds together to the point that separating any of them would be like taking a key ingredient from your mom’s cookies. It does behoove me however to call out Paige Collins’ Clara. She’s the sugary sweetness in this confection, with a resplendent voice and a perfectly balanced projection of vulnerability and resolve. Everyone gets a chance to twinkle with their talent, with most doing whiplash-fast double duty. Barrie and Sprunger are not just the mournful parents but a dynamic duo of devilry as the scary rats (with British accents, no less, and why not?), while the trio of Arena, Perkins, and Ruiter provide a comic relief of larger-than-life proportions as Fritz and Clara’s army of misfit toys. Stangler is perhaps the most heartbreaking as the ersatz brother brought from beyond, and his brotherly love for his sister and the painful necessity of letting him go provide the critical emotional roots.

Minton and Klapperich’s adapted book blends silliness with sorrow, and there are some dark moments as every true fairy tale requires butted up next to zany moments of gut busting comedy for both children and adults. Puppet work brings a spunky teddy bear (also Sprunger) and some chillingly huge rats to life, while set design by Collette Pollard is one of the best in-the-round sets I’ve ever witnessed (its transformation in the second act is stunning with help from lighting designer Lee Keenan). Composer Kevin O’Donnell (with lyrics by Minton) have blended traditional holiday scores with a modern sensibility to create a new set of carols and some heartbreaking ballads.

In a sea of overproduced television movies that just manufacture their so-called ‘magic’ in bulk, The Nutcracker is an authentic piece of real life Christmas cheer pitched right at the sweet spot of transformative spectacle and enthralling tale. This is one spellbinding tradition I hope The House Theatre lets Chicago continue keeping every year, if only to remind us—as Uncle Drosselmeyer states with a deadpan sobriety—”Magic is real.”

Highly Recommended.

Review by Clint May

Date Reviewed: November 18, 2012

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