Chicago Theatre Review
Home for the Holidays
The House Nutcracker 2015
Many holiday shows try to cultivate a sense of warmth and belonging in their space, but the minute you enter the space House Nutcracker, octagonal boards of Colette Pollard, scratched by many years of use and life and warmed by Lee Keenan’s light, the gloom of the fast footed and hunch-shouldered season evaporates and you feel as though you really were about to enter a house party with dear friends, which you are.
Martha and David (Maika Washburn and Abu Ansari) are holding one of their famed christmas parties, both for the delight of their daughter Clara (Jaclyn Hennell) and to celebrate the return of their son Fritz (Desmond Grey). When the unimaginable blunders into their happy lives a darkness descends upon the home. But the arrival of Great Uncle Drosselmeyer (James Houton) and an apt gift gives Clara a fighting chance to draw her family together and rescue christmas from the jaws of the Rat King.
From the first moments, The Nutcracker sparks with liveliness. It’s intricate choreography (courtesy of director Tommy Rapley) is, though my memory may fail me, the most daring and wow-worthy of any rendition I’ve yet seen, full of grooves, lifts, hairpin turns, all very jazzy and shoulder squaring. In-between the Chicanery of Clara’s three toys Hugo (Andrew Lund), Phoebe (Rachel Shapiro) and Monkey (Chris Mathews) and the flashy Fosse numbers of the three shady, scary rats out to undo Clara’s efforts and woo her to the dark, we are treated to a more physical Nutcracker (a slightly naughtier one too), closer to a ballet then a musical.
But, no matter what portion is focused on The Nutcracker remains a truly well knit production: no one element outdoing or letting down the rest. There are times, through diction and sound deficiencies, that we could not always hear the singing or speaking, and some presentations were slightly more manic then called for. But the actors vibrancy of spirit painted clear enough a picture: Hennell’s smooth and snow-bright voice and Mathews good hearted goofiness particularly the frosty stand off between Washburn and Ansari, that thaws so gradually and gracefully.
But the House Nutcracker does something else that many holiday shows do not. It invites us to travel beyond the lovely lights and swelling songs and jazzy dances to the place inside the walls, places of loss and loneliness, where there are hurts not even christmas magic can heal. It’s a scary play, not just because of the giant, British rats, but because it shows its scars and cannot winkle them away. But it also shows that in spite of all that darkness in the world we can each kindle a little light into the world, if not for us then for another heart. That is something to keep in mind in this cold and poor season, and it is the office of friends to remind us. And that knowledge, shared with us, is why, when we come into the Nutcracker, we feel as though we’re coming home.
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Division Ave. Chicago, just opposite the Division Blue Line Stop.
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:00 and 7:30, Sundays at 3:00.
Run time is two hours.
Show good for children aged 5 and upwards. Despite scares and sadness (and a good deal because of them) this is good family fun.
For more information on this or other productions visit thehousetheatre.com or theaterinchicago.com