(Editor's note: The following is a review of the 2014 production.)
The holiday season is a time typically associated with giving, but the House Theatre’s adaptation of The Nutcracker stands out by being a musical about loss. It begins with a rush of Christmas cheer as young Clara (Jaclyn Hennell) and her family prepare for the return of her brother Fritz (Shaun Baer) from war, but when a man appears at their door with a folded American flag, that warm wave of positivity and joy is replaced by cold grief and despair.
Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich’s story, based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” recognizes that the holidays can be a painful experience for families suffering a major loss. Committing to those darker, more mature elements gives the production immense emotional depth, and it provides a striking point of contrast for the lighter, sillier adventures Clara goes on with her toys as they try to save Christmas.
I’ve seen House’s The Nutcracker once before, and the show definitely holds up to multiple viewings. It’s easy to see why it’s become a Chicago staple over the last few years; the script is inspiring without being sappy, the music is catchy and full of feeling, and the pacing is damn near perfect. This is Tommy Rapley’s sixth year as the director and choreographer of The Nutcracker, and the production is still as intense and engaging as ever.
Switching up the cast helps keep the production fresh, and Karl Potthoff is the only cast member who sticks around from last year’s mounting—a wise decision considering the warmth he brings to the wily Uncle Drosselmeyer, the man who gives Clara a nutcracker that resembles her fallen brother. Ericka Ratcliff and Paul Fagen capture the quietly tortured dynamic that makes parents Martha and David such heartbreaking characters, and Hennell plays Clara with a captivating mix of optimistic naïveté and fearful denial.
The dramatic core of the production is tight with Clara’s family, and Andrew Lund, Michael E. Smith and Krystal Worrell bring the humor and fun as Clara’s living toys. They’re the characters that really pull the younger viewers into the story, and they create a welcoming environment that provides comfort during some of the play’s creepier moments. House’s The Nutcracker is certainly appropriate for all ages, but it’s not afraid to get a little scary at times, and that willingness to go dark ultimately strengthens the power of the story’s uplifting elements.
The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre. Book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich. Music by Kevin O’Donnell. Lyrics by Jake Minton. Directed by Tommy Rapley. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.