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Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)   
The Nutcracker 

Book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich

Music by Kevin O’Donnell, Lyrics by Jake Minton
Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Rapley
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru Dec 30  |  tickets: $25-$35   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



Ingenious retelling of a classic proves that holiday magic is indeed real


Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)


The House Theatre of Chicago presents


The Nutcracker

Review by Joy Campbell

Say “The Nutcracker” and it’s a good bet the first thing that comes to mind is the Tchaikovsky ballet. The ballet itself is from a revision by Alexander Dumas of the children’s story "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" written by E.T.A. Hoffman. To recap: we have a story, a revision, and a balletic interpretation of that revision. It’s the natural order of things, then, that The House Theatre should re-imagine this classic for a new audience.

Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)
Often, when something iconic is remade, the fear is that it will be either an inferior version of the original, or a showcase of the re-maker’s cleverness at the expense of faithfulness to the original (I’m looking at you, Dark Shadows).

Happily, in The House Theatre’s retelling of The Nutcracker, neither case is true. Instead, while honoring the original, it has created an updated holiday classic for people like me who – OK, I’ll just say it – don’t care for ballet; for people who love the story and will appreciate a fresher, more modern take; or for anyone who just loves really excellent theater.

When the play opens, we are in Clara’s house, where guests arrive and are entertained as they unwrap gifts and mill about the central Christmas tree. A banner reading “Welcome Home Fritz” hangs from the wall, and the guests wait in growing anticipation of the son’s return. When a soldier arrives with the bad news however, Christmas is canceled and Clara and her parents are left alone.

Cut to the next Christmas season: Eccentric and whimsical Uncle Drosselmeyer (a charismatic Loren Lazerine) arrives to a house where Christmas no longer happens, and Clara and her parents are isolated by grief. Drosselmeyer gives Clara a present he’s made for her: a nutcracker in the image of her big brother, Fritz. Her parents aren’t pleased, but Clara is delighted and looks forward to adding him to her collection of dolls, which includes a talking doll named Phoebe, a monkey named – well, Monkey, and a tin man named Hugo. When the clock strikes midnight, Fritz and the toys come to life. Together, they help Clara in her mission to save Christmas.

I particularly like the reinvention of The Nutcracker character as Clara’s big brother. The bond between the two is strong, and adds accessibility to the relationship in a world of overused girl-meets-prince plot devices. Clara is no girly damsel in distress, so the brother/sister relationship works well here. It also gives an opportunity for a lovely, grounding scene between them where Fritz talks about how much he regrets that he’ll miss the important events in Clara’s life.

As Clara, Paige Collins gives an immensely likeable, natural performance. With an amazingly expressive face and bell-like singing voice, she wins us over immediately. She is never too precocious; never too precious. Kevin Stangler as Fritz shows us the bravery that made him a good soldier as well as the kindness that made him such a beloved brother and son. The two share an onstage chemistry that many siblings would envy.

With doll Phoebe (an effervescent Christine Perkins) reciting her stock lines (“I love you!” “Let’s make cookies!” “I’m afraid of the dark!”) with perfect timing; a hilariously and inexplicably French Monkey (Johnny Arena); and a nerdy Hugo (Brandon Ruiter – showcasing a killer beatbox), Clara and Fritz take on the rats. Lovers of the dark, the rats hate all the lights of Christmas and are bent on destroying it.

The rats are, simply put, sensational. Played by the same actors as the parents (Brenda Barrie, Benjamin Springer) and Drosselmeyer, the rats (aka Really Scary Rat, Quite Scary Rat, Really Quite Scary Rat) are presented as a sort of British Mod. Sporting rose-tinted glasses, Teddy-Boy shoes and East-End accents, they are a scream. Evil, to be sure, but a scream. Watching Brenda Barrie go from archetypal mom to British Rat is alone worth the price of admission.

The Land of Sweets becomes the kitchen, where Clara and friends attempt to make sugar-plum cookies, a favorite of Fritz’s that their mother had stopped making. The rats appear, a food fight ensues, and the adults wake to find the mess.

The Land of Snow becomes the snowy yard where Our Intrepid Heroes chop down a pine for a Christmas tree (in a move heavy with symbolism, they accidentally cut down the tree planted when Fritz was born). Rats again spoil the fun. Oh, those rats.

Eventually, they make their way to the attic to retrieve Christmas decorations, where they encounter a wisecracking long-lost teddy bear that had belonged to Fritz, rendered as a full-sized puppet wielded and performed with all-out fun by puppet master Dan Kerr-Hobert. When the rats capture Clara’s comrades and take them into the wall, Clara uses a magic walnut (get it?) to follow. The set is in the round, and as it transforms breathtakingly from parlor to the netherworldly den of the rats, you feel as though you are in a carnival haunted-house ride. Enter the seven-headed Rat King, another stupendous bit of puppetry involving enormous rat heads with glowing red eyes, and a speaking rat with yard-long teeth and a deep, evil voice broadcast in what feels like Surround-sound. Deliciously scary, this is no mousie in tights, although the young children in the audience seemed to handle it well.

Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)
Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)

Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)
Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)
Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)

Collette Pollard’s set is simple but tells much: we are given a parquet floor and five tall French doors hung with rich fabric, as well as wall sconces and photographic portraits behind the audience. The effect is of a timeless place where modern sensibility meets with traditional Victorian style. Lee Keenan’s creative lighting not only gives us magic, it helps transform a parlor into a yard and a creepy rats’ den.

Debbie Baer’s delightful costumes will leave you asking Santa for a pull-cord in your back and a working light bulb on your head. Trust me.

To say that Tommy Rapley’s direction and choreography are impressive is an understatement. The opening party scene is played with much complex movement and milling that gives the impression of a sort of controlled dance. Fight and other chaotic scenes are pulled off with a head-spinning precision that looks natural and effortless. The direction and staging are crisp and beautifully executed.

A moment to give a big tip of the hat to the backstage crew. Again, the stage is in the round, and there are no fewer than five exits. Many times, the pace of the action is dizzying, with props moving on and off stage faster than you can follow, and the back-set crew is on the job. Dolls come and go, plates of cookies appear and disappear, and all is executed seamlessly.

As if puppets, talking toys, and British rats aren’t enough, live musicians provide musical accompaniment. More a play with music than a musical, the original songs and score by Jake Minton and Kevin O’Donnell add just enough icing to the top of this sweet treat of a show.

In the end there is no happily-ever-after, which is a nice departure from the sugar-coated holiday stories that leave one craving credibility and a shot of insulin. This magical, ingenious retelling of a classic tale assures The House Theater’s The Nutcracker a well-earned place in Chicago’s holiday-entertainment pantheon.


Rating: ★★★★



The Nutcracker continues through December 30th at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 7:00pm. Tickets are $25-$35 ($10 student/industry rush tickets), and are available by phone (773-769-3832) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at Recommended for children 5 and up.  Check Parent’s Guide to see if it’s right for your family. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Johnny Arena (Monkey); Brenda Barrie (Martha, Really Scary Rat); Paige Collins (Clara); Loren Lazerine (Drosselmeyer, Really Quite Scary Rat); Christine Perkins (Phoebe); Brandon Ruiter (Hugo); Benjamin Sprunger (David, Quite Scary Rat); Kevin Stangler  (Fritz); Kelley Abell, Christian Libonati (understudies)

behind the scenes

Tommy Rapley (director, choreographer); Michael E. Smith (asst. director); Collette Pollard (scenic designer); Michael Griggs (sound designer); Lee Keenan (lighting); Debbie Baer (costumes); Ruthanne Swanson (asst. costume designer); Mieka van der Ploeg (associate costume designer, costume manager); Dan Kerr-Hobert (puppet master); Harrison Adams (asst. sound designer); Bridgid Danahy (wardrobe supervisor); Sarah Hoeferlin (stage manager); Elizabeth Penrose (asst. stage manager); Maria DeFabo (props master); Angela Campos (asst. props manager); Vicki Bain, Brian Browne (run crew); Will Dean (master electrician); Sarah Gilmore (audio engineer); Matthew Muniz (music director, piano); Rachel Hsieh (cello); Katie Klocke (violin); Evan Bivens (percussion); Michael Brosilow (photos)

Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)
Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)
Review: The Nutcracker (The House Theatre of Chicago)


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