The Nutcracker | Stage review

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

'Tis the season, yes indeed—and The House Theatre of Chicago’s artists, bless their collective heart, are cracking a different sort of nut. Amid the city’s long-running, more traditional December offerings, they offer this now-annual musical version of the famous Christmastime ballet. And while the names of the main characters are the same, that’s about the end of it. Hold the classic Tchaikovsky compositions; director-choreographer Tommy Rapley’s show features a bit of dancing, but not en pointe, along with original songs by House ensemble members Kevin O’Donnell and Jake Minton.

Something of a mashup between the original 1816 story by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and the famous ballet that followed nearly eight decades later, the House’s interpretation was first produced in 2007. (Since 2010, it’s been revived every holiday season.) There’s a Clara and a Drosselmeyer, yes, but this time around, the trio of dolls that make cameos in the ballet become Clara’s ongoing companions, helping to fight rodent enemies who are no mere mice, but instead an even-more-menacing Rat King and his minions.

The most drastic change, however, grounds the story in an emotionally heft that grownups will surely appreciate, although it might take some audience members by somber surprise. Minton and co-playwright Phillip Klapperich kick off the show with an ebullient family gathering, a welcome-home party for older brother Fritz. (A frenzy of movement, music and presents, it’s a high-energy party just like a kid would fantasize about.) But the festivities come to an abrupt halt when a military official arrives at the door instead, bearing a folded flag. Soldier Fritz won’t be coming home. Although young Clara is bewildered, the aching reactions of her parents (deftly played by Benjamin Sprunger and an especially affecting Brenda Barrie) tell all.

The rest of the show concerns Clara’s attempts, encouraged by the bizarre but funny Uncle Drosselmeyer, to return Christmas to a home steeped in mourning. Aiding her in this task are her three favorite toys—a French sock monkey, a geeky robot and a ditzy doll—and the nutcracker, brought to life by Fritz’s ghost. Smartly, the storytellers basically leave it up to the audience to decide if Clara is dreaming it all or if Fritz really does magically return to this world for one last mission.

There’s so much to enjoy in this show, it’s almost silly to single out any single element. The cast all deliver enthusiastic performances; kids will surely be especially charmed by the dolls (Johnny Arena’s monkey, Christine Perkins’s Phoebe and Brandon Ruiter’s robot Hugo), whose droll humor will make adults grin too. Indeed, Minton and Company have crafted plenty of clever throwaway lines and and lyrics to entertain older audience members, such as the vaguely naughty references in the “Let’s Make Cookies” song, which will go right over kids’ heads. Later, act two opens with peppy, slightly jazzy number by a trio of rats (which vaguely echoes the fun another villain’s theme song, “Cruella DeVille”).

It all builds toward a climactic finale against the dreaded Rat King, which includes dramatic darkened lighting; a creepy piano, strings and percussion score; and a bunch of nasty rat-puppet heads with glowing red eyes which brave Clara must battle. When it was all over and the lights came back up, more than one wide-eyed young kid could be seen cuddling up to a parent. But it’s exactly the kind of scares kids love, and everyone was delighted once the show was over.

And because the House is full of such fun folks, kids even got to have a mock-snow fight during intermission with all the fluffy stage “snow” that falls during act one. How much fun is that?! Given our bizarrely warm early-December weather, you might have to hit The Nutcracker just so kids can play with any kind of the fluffy white stuff.

The House Theatre's version of The Nutcracker runs through December 30 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St (773-278-1500). Tickets are $25–$35.