The Nutcracker by the House Theatre of Chicago 2015

By Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, NutcrackerPoster_2014_WebLg
Kevin O’Donnell, and Tommy Rapley

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

Directed & Choreographed by Tommy Rapley

Produced by The House Theatre of Chicago

At The Chopin Upstairs Theatre, Chicago

An Exciting and Immersive Christmas Musical For All Ages

Excepting fringe productions, Christmas musicals seem designed for one purpose: the feel-good resolution. The House Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker, written by Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell, and Tommy Rapley and based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, is no exception here.

The story centers on a family who, last Christmas, lost their only son Fritz (Desmond Gray) to war. With this year’s Christmas soon approaching, the mother and father, Martha (Marika Washburn) and David (Abu Ansari), feel uninspired to celebrate and have effectively exorcised the spirited Christmas in their home and cancelled their yearly celebration. Uncle Drosselmeyer (James Houton), however, in his preternatural ability to both diagnose and treat their spiritual malaise, has arrived to celebrate anyway – and he has brought his niece Clara (Jaclyn Hennell) just the right gift (and magic) in order for her to save Christmas: a nutcracker Fritz.


Late at night, Clara discovers that not only has the nutcracker Fritz come to life but her other dolls have, too: Hugo (Andrew Lund), an intellectual robot with a lisp; Monkey (Chris Mathews), a monkey with an inexplicable French accent; and Phoebe (Rachel Shapiro), a blonde-haired, string-corded ragdoll. Together with the help of these magical allies, Clara quests to overcome the evil Rat King and his minions who stand in her and her parents’ way in order to reclaim the spirit of Christmas and, equally, salve the wound of Fritz’s death.


I myself, being more aligned with the Grinch (pre-Whoville conversion), am not easily given over to the “feel-good” genre. So much to say, I did not find Ripley’s production particularly moving – not that the story doesn’t seek to provide enough tearful fodder, what with its “touching” songs, but, rather, I found them ineffective. Moreover, the singing and the songs are particularly unmemorable – pardoning the musical accompaniment led by Musical Director Matthew Muñiz, which I found very well done, and the sound design by Michael Griggs, for whom I credit being able to hear them so clearly in a space that doesn’t appear designed for musical accompaniment.

What Ripley’s The Nutcracker does well, though, is to immerse you in Clara’s imaginative world and to bring that world to life. The relatively simple set of four walls and four, paneled glass doors literally transforms before your eyes in the second act, and I don’t believe I’ve ever found the lighting design (here, by Lee Keenan) so perfectly executed to the encouragement of the viewer’s imagination in experiencing the story. Furthermore, the choreography – and the fight choreography, in particular – is executed in a style reminiscent of a children’s cartoon, which, however, I think resists the slapstick and the loony enough in order to retain a sense of grace and order while preserving the comedic frenzy. All this I found very well done, and I think children would really enjoy it, too.


Additionally, there are some genuinely funny moments here (though maybe over children’s heads) mixed in with some endearing performances. Houton as Drosselmeyer – and even as the Really Quite Scary Rat – is a lovable and humorous as eye-patched uncles come. Ansari and Mashburn, too, make for two quite humorous, albeit nefarious, Rats with British accents when they’re not playing grief-stricken parents. And Mathews as the French monkey steals the stage with his physical humor and his comedic delivery.

In all, though Nutcracker purists might be disappointed to find the rich and evocative darkness of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story diluted with comedy and adapted to a wide and general American audience, there is much to appreciate in Ripley’s The Nutcracker, which will find true believers in children and adults – and maybe a few Grinches – alike.


August Lysy

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Reviewed on November 13th, 2015

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Find all the places to see The Nutcracker in Chicago and surrounding areas.

Playing at The Chopin Upstairs Theatre, 1534 W. Division St., Chicago. Tickets are $25 – $45, with $10 Student and Industry discounts for all dates. For tickets and information, call The House Theatre box office at 773-769-3832, or visit Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 7:00 pm, with 3:00 pm matinees Saturday and Sunday through December 31. (NOTE: There are additional holiday performances the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, with a family-friendly New Year’s Eve extravaganza following the closing performance on December.) Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one, 10-minute intermission.