Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sans Ballet, The House Theatre’s ‘Nutcracker’ Pirouettes Rather Imaginatively — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Nutcracker 
The House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theatre
Thru December 30

For as long as I’ve been aware of the concept of live entertainment, I’ve been aware of The Nutcracker.

As a ballet.

When I was knee high to, well, a nutcracker, my Aunt Mickey took me to the ballet at the Goodman Theatre, when it adjoined the Art Institute of Chicago.

She had been intending to just take my sisters, but probably around the age of 5, I insisted I should get to go, too.

So I’ve long been aware of Clara and the nutcracker/prince and sugar plum fairies and the great Tchaikovsky score and, well, ballet dancing.

And after many years of not again seeing The Nutcracker, I took myself to the Joffrey Ballet version in 2015, the last year of the Robert Joffrey-conceived production.

And I loved it.

Now the Joffrey does a version imagined and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and I'm hoping to see it in a few weeks.

But though clearly sketchy on the details, I knew the noted House Theatre of Chicago puts on its own annual version of The Nutcracker, now for the 8th year.

So the other night I took advantage of the chance to see it, with my mom and sister Allison in tow.

It was certainly not The Nutcracker I remembered--even from just 2 years ago--as it is not a ballet, nor does it contain any.

Until shortly before attending, I didn't realize this.

I knew that in general, the House puts on rather imaginative shows, typically with a quirky bent. (Certainly not only, per its fine preceding production of United Flight 232.)

And given that the troupe's current venue, the Chopin Theatre on the Division side of Chicago's Polish Triangle, doesn't give it a humongous stage footprint, I didn't expect a Joffrey Ballet-type production.

At which point, you may be thinking, "but wait, you said this is the 8th year, didn't you know it wasn't a ballet?"

No, until reading about it a few days before attending, I really didn't. I thought it might be the House Theatre's version of a ballet, substituting some silliness for dance virtuosity, but I thought The Nutcracker, particularly around the holidays, means ballet. (Arguments could be made for, though also against, changing the title here.)

But while there is still Clara, a nutcracker given to her by a man named Drosselmeyer, dolls that come to life, live music and even a bit of dancing, there are no plies, releves or sautes to be found.

Which doesn't make it bad, just different.

Even more different than what I had vaguely anticipated.

Yet to call it a play also seems imprecise, as there is live music throughout and even a number of nice songs, though it is also not a traditional musical.

The House version of The Nutcracker is based, somewhat, on the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that begat the Tchaikovsky ballet, but this rendition is created by House Theatre members Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O'Donnell and Tommy Rapley.

The show originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 under the Visiting Company Initiative and has enjoyed new House productions since 2010, with a supposedly significant revamping in 2016.

This year it is directed by Chris Mathews. 

Though fun, festive, tremendously inventive with terrific performances and some really nice songs, it revolves around themes of death, grief and fear far more than the ballet Nutcracker.

While it should be enjoyable, and even informative, for children of a certain age--which as a non-parent I won't try to pinpoint--be aware that it is a good bit darker than the ballet.

Essentially, the House uses the dreamy surrealism of Tchaikovsky/Hoffmann's Nutcracker and adapts it to modern times, where after joyously gathering--and even interacting with the audience--to celebrate the Christmas homecoming of their son Fritz (Desmond Gray) from an ongoing war, his parents (Amanda de la Guardia, Nicholas Bailey) instead receive heartbreaking news.

Fritz's teenage sister Clara (a terrific Haley Seda, who also shines vocally) mourns his loss, including through a fine song perhaps called "Christmas is the Darkest Time of Year." (No song list is provided in the program, nor composers/lyricists specified.) 

Though the family's holiday festivities are also forestalled the following December, odd Uncle Eric, also known as Drosselmeyer (an excellent Torrey Hanson) shows up anyway with a gift for Clara .


The present is a nutcracker version of Fritz, who--along with a monkey (Ian Maryfield), rag doll (Rachel Shapiro) and tin man (Ben Hertel)--comes to life in Clara's dreams or nightmares or hallucinations or imagination or just somehow.

There are some truly droll, delightful moments as the toys welcome Fritz and play together, and--as Sugar Plum Cookies abound in this production--a fun tune urging, "Let's Make Cookies."

From here, theoretically as a manifestation of Clara's fears, the narrative revolves around huge rats coming to threaten her and her toy pals, including the impending arrival of the Rat King. (Not, as I surmised, Rat King Cole, a swell-singing merry old soul.)

Much of this is great fun thanks to the excellent, exuberant 8-person cast, many of whom wind up portraying rats along with their other roles.

But it also all becomes a bit much.

In a variety of ways, including the costuming by Debbie Baer, the House Nutcracker is hugely imaginative, but in being so, it's also rather manic as it dances between deep despair and giddy ebullience, intense fears and tender poignancy.

There is much to be admired and savored, including fine background music throughout--Matthew Muniz is the music director and created the orchestrations--and four strong songs, with the Fritz sung "Ghost of Christmas Day" another highlight. (Again all titles are just guesses on my part.)

I can readily see why this show has become a Chicago seasonal staple, and was happy to add my applause.

But ultimately it was a bit too frantic and surreal--a type of theatricality I often struggle with--for me to relish it quite on par with other works.

Such as the Nutcracker ballet.

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