Chicago Theatre Review
A Modern Twist on a Holiday Classic
The Nutcracker – House Theatre
With neither a tutu nor a ballet slipper in sight, the House Theatre presents its sixth production of their modern, family-friendly adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffman’s classic story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” This, however, isn’t the much-performed holiday ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Audiences won’t see any waltzing Snow Flakes or twirling Sugar Plum Fairies here, and there isn’t a single Grand pas de deux performed on the Chopin stage.
What audiences will see, however, is an exciting, magical, often touching holiday story, loosely adapted from Hoffmann’s tale. Jake Minton, author of “The Sparrow,” the play that brought the House Theatre of Chicago to everyone’s attention, created this contemporary version about a young girl named Clara who saves Christmas. In this interpretation, Clara’s Nutcracker Prince is the spirit of her hero and older brother Fritz, recently killed while serving his country in the military. Christmas in Clara’s home was always a festive occasion, bursting with food, family and friends. However, following Fritz’s death, the family completely shuts down and all joy seems forbidden.
The following Christmas, Clara’s Uncle Eric Drosselmeyer unexpectedly arrives for the annual family party only to find little evidence of any holiday festivities. There’s no Christmas tree, no holiday punch and Martha hasn’t made her famous sugar plum cookies. But Uncle Eric has brought his niece a present: a new Nutcracker, which looks exactly like Fritz. Later that night the doll, and Clara’s other toys, all come to life. Their mission is to help Clara fight off the dark army of evil rats hiding within the house walls and to bring light, joy and Christmas back to the family.
Minton’s modern adaptation admirably tranports this well-known story into today’s world. America’s continued military involvement in so many wars and worldwide conflicts has left many families with unopened presents beneath their Christmas tree. The loss of a loved one has become all too common among families within the past several years and the sorrow is most deeply felt at the holidays. Minton’s play addresses the tragedy that many families experience.
The problem with the current production is that the poignancy of the play often gets lost in an overabundance of silliness. Featuring featherbrained characters shouting at each other and racing around the stage and in and out of the many doors provided in Collette Pollard’s lovely drawing room set, the play loses much of its deeper meaning. Any heartbreak is quickly forgotten and all redemption becomes overshadowed by a Saturday morning cartoon-like staging. Last season’s “Rose and the Rime,” a finely directed, family-friendly House Theatre production, offered bundles of joy, a few frightening moments, but a genuine feeling of love and a triumph over adversity and loss that seem missing in this show.
One of the best elements of this production, however, is Kevin O’Donnell’s lovely, expressive score, musically directed by Matthew Muniz and performed by Kevin Reeks’ four-piece chamber orchestra. Another highlight is Debbie Baer and Mieka van der Ploeg’s bright, beautiful costumes. Every piece is holiday happy, a little funky and colorfully festive, with her Rat King and his entourage particularly exciting and ominous. Dan Kerr-Hobert’s puppetry talents help elevate the production, as well. The avalanche of snow that falls on and covers the entire stage just before intermission is particularly wonderful. Watching all the children and their parents playing in the fluffy white stuff, and then helping the running crew to clean it all up before Act II, is worth the ticket price.
Jaclyn Hennell makes an excellent Clara. She grounds this show, bringing a thoughtful, much-needed realism to the production. When Fritz (nicely played with unflappable heroics by Shaun Baer) doesn’t return home for the holidays, Ms. Hennell’s Clara is understandably saddened by the loss of her brother, but she’s also a little confused. Death isn’t something children easily comprehend and Ms. Hennell wisely shows this. Clara also can’t understand why her parents (the excellent Ericka Ratcliff and Paul Fagen, as Martha and David) are reluctant to celebrate the holiday a full year later. While Andrew Lund’s Hugo-the-robot doll, Michael E. Smith’s Monkey doll and Krystal Worrell’s rag doll Phoebe are all delightful, their over-played enthusiasm and nonsensical antics overpower everything else. Karl Potthoff makes a kindly, understanding Uncle Eric Drosselmeyer and, together with Ms. Ratcliff and Mr. Fagen, comprise a comically cantankerous trio of rats.
This welcome return by the House Theatre of their new, modern adaptation of an old favorite story is joyful and often heartfelt. It sometimes gets bogged down in too much loud, inane cartoonish silliness, but when it settles down enough to honestly portray the real heart of the Jack Minton’s play, Clara’s able to teach every audience member the true importance of family and Christmas.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 6-December 28 by The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin upstairs Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.