By Colin Douglas
Ten years have passed since The House Theatre of Chicago first presented their original, contemporary version of E. T. A. Hoffman’s classic story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Whenever theatergoers hear that iconic title, forever associated with Christmas, they envision fairies and a toy that comes to life to bravely battle a Mouse King to rescue a little girl named Clara. They imagine a dazzling spectacle, a lavishly-produced ballet, featuring dozens of lithe, magnificently skilled dancers. They picture lush, imaginative costumes and a story set in a magical fantasyland of snowflakes and flowers.
But with neither a tutu nor a toe shoe in sight, the House Theatre once again revives its popular production of their modern, family-friendly adaptation, loosely based upon the original tale. This isn’t the familiar holiday ballet, composed 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, by Jake Minton. He re-envisioned this contemporary musical about a young, 21st century girl named Clara who saves Christmas for her family. 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 the joy leaves the home.
The following Christmas, Clara’s Aunt Erica 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 nephew David hasn’t baked his famous sugar plum cookies. But Aunt Erica has brought her niece a magical present: a new Nutcracker, which looks exactly like Fritz. Later that night the doll, and all of Clara’s other toys, come to life. Their mission turns to helping Clara fight off a dark army of evil rats hiding within the walls of the house 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 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 during the holiday season.
In past productions, the poignancy of the play was lost in an overabundance of slapstick silliness. Featherbrained characters shouted at each other and raced around the arena stage, running in and out of the many doors provided in Collette Pollard’s lovely drawing room set. The play simply lost much of its deeper meaning. But this year is different and, happily, the show is much more heartrending, while still maintaining its whimsy.
Assisting Minton with writing are Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell and Tommy Rapley, who also brilliantly direct and choreograph this production. One of the strongest elements of this production is O’Donnell’s lovely, expressive score, musically directed, conducted and accompanied by Jon Schneidman, and his talented five-piece chamber orchestra. They’ve been cleverly tucked away, but in view of the audience, within the lovely scenic design.
Another highlight of this show is Debbie Baer and Mieka van der Ploeg’s bright, beautiful costumes. Every piece is holiday happy, a little funky and colorfully festive, with the Rat King and his entourage particularly exciting and ominous. Wildly inventive creations by the Chicago Puppetry Studio help elevate the production, as well. An avalanche of snow falls onto and covers the entire stage just before intermission, offering children a wonderful opportunity to play with some of the cast members. Watching all the kids and their parents enjoying the faux, fluffy white stuff, and then helping the running crew to clean it up before Act II, is worth the price of admission.
Amaris Sanchez makes a perfectly lovely Clara. She grounds this show, bringing a thoughtful, much-needed realism to the production, along with a gorgeously trained singing voice. Sanchez, is warm and wonderful. She has a childlike innocence and natural charm, that’s ideally suited to this role. The young actress just finished a long run in Miracle, at the Royal George Theatre. Other noteworthy roles include playing Little Gloria Estefan in the Broadway and First National Tour of On Your Feet, and for two seasons she portrayed Emily Cratchet in the Goodman’s classic production of A Christmas Carol.
When Fritz (nicely played this year with unflappable heroics by Dwayne Everett) doesn’t return home for the holidays, Sanchez’s Clara is understandably saddened by the loss of her older brother, but she’s also a little confused. Death isn’t something that children easily understand and she attempts to come to terms with this fact of life. Clara also can’t understand why her two dads, the excellent Nicholas Bailey and Benjamin Sprunger, as David and Martin, are so glum a full year later and reluctant to celebrate the holiday. Clara’s toys, Colin Morgan’s hilarious Hugo-the-robot doll, Johnny Arena’s Marcel, the Sock Monkey doll and sweet, petite Rachel Shapiro’s Phoebe, the rag doll, are all delightful and played with contained enthusiasm and nonsense. Amanda de la Guardia is especially sensational as a kindly, empathetic and understanding Auntie Drosselmeyer. Together with Sprunger and Bailey, they also double as a comically cantankerous trio of scary rats, made multitudinous and scarier by a gaggle of gigantic puppets.
The House Theatre’s welcome, newly-updated return of their modern adaptation of an old favorite fairytale is joyful, handsomely produced and truly heartfelt. It still sometimes gets bogged down in a lot of loud, cartoonish silliness and slapstick. However, when the antics settle down and theatergoers are able to understand Minton’s clever dialogue, the production soars. It becomes an honest, refreshingly contemporary interpretation of the old Christmas classic. Clara and her friends have the ability and to move every audience member with the true importance of love and family and Christmas.
The House Theatre presents “The Nutcracker” through December 29 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.