Every year Mike and I take time to go on a special Christmas date – one of my favorite traditions of our sixteen years together – and in recent years we’ve been intentional about starting a similar tradition with our boys.
This year we were thrilled to bring them to see The House Theatre of Chicago‘s rendition of The Nutcracker. While my family received complimentary tickets to attend the performance, all thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own. Many thanks to the cast and crew for a wonderful performance!
I think one of the marks of an exceptional story is how often it is told, and retold, and adapted for more telling. The Nutcracker certainly fits this qualification – it’s beloved narrative part of so many families holiday tradition – and still it is capable of being shared fresh and new for another generation of fairytale lovers.
So it is with The House Theatre of Chicago’s rendition of this classic tale.
Based on the story by E.T.A Hoffman, and created by Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell, and Tommy Rapley, The House Theatre of Chicago’s rendition of The Nutcracker is a fanciful, musical, magical sort of tale.
Let me be clear – this is not Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. There is no ballet, no sugarplum fairies, no grand orchestral score. But in place of these more traditional elements is a warm and tender story of family – of love and loss and grief – and how those emotions play into the complexities of celebrating Christmas.
Christmas is changed forever when Fritz doesn’t come home from the war, leaving behind a heartbroken kid-sister and grief-stricken parents. The little family is as lost as ever without Fritz by the time of the annual holiday party one year later, and it seems that Christmas may be cancelled.
That is, until Uncle Drosselmeyer pays an unexpected visit, bringing with him a magical Nutcracker.
Spurred on by the magic and imaginings of Uncle Drosselmeyer, Clara and her toys – Monkey, Phoebe, Hugo, and new Nutcracker Fritz – go on a daring adventure to save Christmas for her family, and in the process help them find peace over Fritz’s death.
What I loved
So much of this show was unexpected in the most incredibly delightful way, and it’s hard to summarize what I loved without saying EVERYTHING, but I’ll try :).
Here are a just a few of my favorite highlights from the show:
Everything about the show was inviting.
From the moment I walked into the theater I was drawn into the story. Breath-taking french doors stand tall at every aisle, framing the stage area and placing the first few audience rows within the action of the drama. Actors strolled about before the show and during intermission giving the audience a chance to chat with them as real people, not just as characters in a play.
We had the pleasure of sitting in one of the front rows circling the stage, and once the show started we felt part of it in a way I have never experienced before – interacting with characters face-to-face, eating the cookies they sang about, even bringing the freshly fallen stage snow home with us in our shoes and jackets.
The show definitely had that WOW factor.
We’ve had the incredible privilege of seeing several shows – both at large broadway venues and smaller theaters. When I think of the shows that have really wowed me I’m typically thinking Lion King, Wicked, or Aladdin.
From here on out, I’ll be adding The Nutcracker to that list.
The staging took my breath away. The effects were incredible, and I actually gasped out loud when they dropped the snow. I have never been so delighted at an off-broadway production. They impossibly made a small theater like The Chopin feel like we were sitting front row at the Cadillac enjoying everything that comes with a performance of that caliber.
It gripped me emotionally.
The jokes were really funny, and the happy scenes were merry and joyful. When the news came that Fritz wouldn’t be returning I cried. And I cried again when he sang to Clara about how she needed to keep Christmas alive.
The actors and actresses showed genuine emotion and played their characters honestly. The natural progression is that we as the audience would be taken with them on their emotional journey. It really was so well done!
The cast is exceptional.
This cast is truly talented – not only in their performance on stage, but I read the playbill, and several have been extras on major network television shows. (Yes, I am totally fan-girling!!)
If that weren’t impressive enough, they demonstrated true humility, something this momma is ALWAYS grateful to point out to my boys. During intermission, after the snow I’ve talked so much about, it wasn’t only the stage crew that grabbed the brooms to clean up. Everyone pitched in to get the stage ready for Act II. I have never been more impressed by the people behind the magic of an amazing production.
Notes for Families
Going to a theatrical presentation with kids is an incredible experience, but it’s also one that you want to be completely prepared for. Here are a few logistical notes to help make The Nutcracker experience amazing for your family.
There is general admission for this performance.
This means your tickets do not correspond to a numbered seat, so you’re going to want to get there early. The house opens around 30 minutes before the presentation, but by that point, the line to get in will have already consumed the lobby.
If possible, have one adult grab tickets from will call and wait at the doors, and a second adult bring the kids in closer to the time they open. That way you’ve got your spot in line and the kids are not going nuts in a crowded lobby.
This is a family show, not a children’s show.
The Nutcracker is absolutely appropriate for kids, but it is not a children’s show. My almost 9 and almost 7-year-old boys loved it, but a year ago may have been frightened during a few scenes. The Rat King plays a huge part at the end, and the puppets are pretty scary for little ones. They do look like puppets, but bedtime can be a cruel and imaginative time of day.
Also be aware that the show is two hours in length with a fifteen minute intermission. We chose to leave our two-year-old back with Grandma and Papa and we were very grateful we did!
Bottom line – know what, and how much, your child can take. No parent wants to spend the performance in the lobby. Trust me :).
Plan for traffic and parking.
The Chopin is more “downtown” than not, so make sure to take traffic into account when you plan to leave. We placed our bets on finding street parking and were plain old lucky. Take a minute to check out their travel and parking info before you go just to be prepared.
Plan to talk about the show with your kids.
Some of the themes in the show are heavy and complex – loss always is – so be available to talk about the show after the performance. The culminating message of the show that ultimately explains how Clara deals with Fritz’s loss is not exactly what we would tell our children to do in the same situation, but it opened the door for us to have a meaningful conversation as a family.
Which is what I think good theater should do :).
The House Theatre of Chicago’s THE NUTCRACKER
The Chopin Theatre Upstairs Theatre
1543 W. Division St., Chicago, IL
November 3 – December 30, 2017
Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30PM
Saturday matinees at 3PM
Sundays matinees at 3PM
Additional regular Sunday evening 7PM performances begin on Sunday, Dec. 10.
There are no performances on Christmas Eve, Sunday, Dec. 24th.
$20 Previews, $25 – $50
Purchase at www.thehousetheatre.com or by phone at 773.769.3832.