The House Nutcracker Review - A Classic in its own Right

The House Theatre of Chicago is currently presenting its version of “The Nutcracker” at The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W, Division, through December 31st. This adaptation of the story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice”, originally written by E.T.A Hoffman in 1816 was created by Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell and Tommy Rapley, and is directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley. This original “ballet-free” version has been called “a classic in it’s own right”, and stars Jaclyn Hennel as Clara, James Houton as Great- Uncle Drosselmeyer, (he also plays Really Quite Scary Rat) and Desmond Gray as the Nutcracker, or, in this production, the incarnation or ghost of Clara’s slain soldier-brother, Fritz.  Also starring in the roles of Clara’s parents are Abu Ansari, (who also plays Quite Scary Rat) and Marika Mashburn, (also Really Scary Rat). Appearing as the truly delightful toys are Andrew Lund, Chris Mathews and Rachel Shapiro. The production in its current form incepted in 2007 as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Visiting Company Initiative, and has been produced every year since 2010 at Chopin, home to the House Theatre.

Clara and her family play charades, waiting for her brother Fritz' return on leave for Christmas

The Nutcracker story as traditionally staged was made into a ballet with music composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and choreographed by another great Russian, Marius Petipa, who based his work on a retelling by well-known French author Alexander Dumas senior. Other modern ballet masters, such as George Balanchine and Chicago’s beloved Robert Joffrey have choreographed the story, which has been made into numerous movies. All of the traditional versions are based on the same basic plot, and even the House version, while differing in pertinent part, springs from a central theme.

Grief strikes Clara's family when Fritz doesn't come home

In this enthralling performance, a modernized, darkly humorous and less sugary version, we see Clara’s parents cancelling their Christmas revels upon receiving notice that Fritz has died in combat. The presents are packed away, there will be no tree or special cookies, the parents are in mourning and Clara is sad and confused. But the next year, Drosselmeyer appears, looking for holiday treats and bearing the beautiful nutcracker toy. Yes, it gets broken, and he repairs it, but when Clara takes it to bed over protest, it morphs-not into just a toy-king, but into the very spirit of her lost brother. He explores the themes of reality and fantasy with her as they, and the toys who come to life as life-size helpers vanquish the army of rats who really live in the walls of the home. There is much hilarity among the audience and the cast as they join together in music and dance to rout evil, triumph over death by loving dedication, and bring the spirit of family harmony to life.

Magic brings Clara's new Nutcracker to life as her dear brother, Fritz

Along the way, the exuberant cast directly engaged the place deep inside all of us where we can let go of and transcend grief. The costumes, the music, and the sheer magic of the performers particularly touched the real children in the audience. The night I was there, several young people descended to the stage, adorning themselves with snow, sharing edible treats and talking with the characters. This is a production that is modern yet has a happy ending. Special commendations belong to Composer Kevin O’Donnell, lyricist Jake Minton, sound designer Michael Griggs and to musicians Agnieszka Likos on violin, Anthony Scandora on percussion, Matthew Muniz for music direction and on piano and Kelsee Vandervall  on cello for the exciting music. Kudos to Lee Keenan and Emma Deane for the wonderful lighting effects and Debbie Baer for the exceptional costumes.

Uncle Drosselmeyer arrives the following year with a special gift for Clara

This is a production that can and shoud be appreciated and enjoyed by one and all.

All photo credits courtesy of Michael Brosilow

For more information about all of the House Theatre’s terrific productions and to get tickets for the Nutcracker, contact thehousetheatre website

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