House Theatre presents THE NUTCRACKER Review: Celebrating 10 Years of Joy

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House Theatre of Chicago THE NUTCRACKER
Snow covers the stage in a flurry as the toys go outside for the first time Rachel Shapiro as Phoebe Michael Brosilow

It’s the holiday season, and arts institutions around the city are beginning to prepare their holiday traditions. Goodman Theatre downtown is about to celebrate the 42nd year of A Christmas Carol, and the second year of The Santaland Diaries. Joffrey Ballet has their Nutcracker, and The Ruffians Theatre presents Burning Bluebeard. At the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park, the House Theatre has their own tradition – and that tradition has just turned 10-years-old.

House Theatre presents 10th Anniversary of The Nutcracker

 Based on the original story by E.T.A. Hoffman, this production of The Nutcracker follows young Clara’s (Amaris Sanchez) journey to save her family’s Christmas in the face of grief. Crippled by the death of their son Fritz (Dwayne Everett), Clara’s parents Marty (Benjamin Sprunger) and David (Nicholas Bailey) decide to cancel the annual Christmas party. With the help of her magical nutcracker (Everett) and her other toys – Phoebe (Rachel Shapiro), Marcel (Johnny Arena), and Hugo (Colin Morgan), Clara sets out to defeat the Rat King, and force away the darkness on her household before it is too late.

House Theatre of Chicago THE NUTCRACKER
Clara shares in the anticipation for Fritz’s return with her dads and aunt. Amaris Sanchez as Clara, Nicholas Bailey as David, Benjamin Sprunger as Marty, Amanda de la Guardia as Aunt Drosselmeyer Michael Brosilow

Creatively Made for Audiences of All Ages

 Helmed by Director and Choreographer Tommy Rapley, the production is built in a way that appeals to families – from the very moment they enter through the main doors. Actors dressed in character walk around the space and greet the young people, inviting them to dance and sing together while waiting for the show to begin. The actors do the same during intermission – which arrives immediately following an outdoors scene full of snow. Young people are invited up to the stage to play in the snow alongside the actors.

House Theatre of Chicago THE NUTCRACKER
The rats invade the attic and put the fear of the darkness into the toys. Dwayne Everett as Fritz, Rachel Shapiro as Phoebe, Colin Morgan as Hugo, Johnny Arena as Marcel, and Amanda de la Guardia as Really Quite Scary Rat Michael Brosilow

Rapley’s choice is adorable, but also extremely effective in breaking down the barrier between performers and audience members. The Nutcracker has its sweet moments, but also lives in a darker world – exploring themes including grief, death, and monsters. By breaking down the barrier so early, Rapley allows the storytelling to live in a world make-believe, performed by actors whom the young audience members have already befriended and know not to be a threat.

Gorgeous Design

The story begins as one full of hope, and Rapley’s design team utilizes color and detail to showcase the contrast– flooding the home with darkness once the grief sets in. The first scene takes place at the family Christmas party, and Costume Designer Mieka Van Der Ploeg fills her designs with a mix of red and green. Rapley’s choreography takes the cast members all about the space, and as they skip around the tree, Lighting Designer Lee Keenan’s room is bright, and the holiday cheer embraces the audience in this intimate space.

To save Christmas, Clara will have to face the monster lurking in the darkness. Amaris Sanchez as Clara Michael Brosilow

After the family learns of Fritz’s death, everything changes. The bright costumes are replaced with brown sleeping robes, the bright colors in the lighting are gone, and it is impossible not to feel the sharp contrast surround you as an audience member. It is clear that Rapley’s design team embraced a strong collaboration in this storytelling, and created a cohesive story both within and around the script.

Honest Storytelling

As much as this production of The Nutcracker is a story of Clara’s heroism in saving her family, it is also one of heartbreak, and about a family struggling to understand how to move on from such a shocking event. Rapley is careful not to let the darkness overtake this Christmas story too much, but also create a lovely balance in which the audience can feel that which the family is going through.

Marty and David’s marriage is a rocky one following the death, and Sprunger and Bailey fill that relationship with a brutal sense of honesty. The togetherness and merriment we witness at the top of the play is replaced by a couple that can barely be in the same room – allowing the audience to become even more invested in Clara’s mission to help the family.

Clara and Fritz share another relationship that fuels the show – one full of both sadness and hope. In coming back as the Nutcracker, Clara has the opportunity to find closure with her brother, and Everett and Sanchez build a beautiful chemistry that was a joy for this writer to watch unfold.

Brilliant acting and creative storytelling make The Nutcracker the perfect way for families to celebrate this holiday season.

House Theatre of Chicago THE NUTCRACKER
The toys all prepare to battle the Rat King and recover their holiday spirit Dwayne Everett as Fritz, Rachel Shapiro as Phoebe, Colin Morgan as Hugo, Johnny Arena as Marcel, and Amaris Sanchez as Clara Michael Brosilow
House Theatre of Chicago THE NUTCRACKER
The rats sing a warning sign that the Rat King is on his way to devour your holiday cheer Nicholas Bailey as Quite Scary Rat, Benjamin Sprunger as Really Scary Rat, and Amanda de la Guaria as Really Quite Scary Rat Michael Brosilow


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Watch this video showing the TOP PICK PLAYS of 2019

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Running through December 29, 2019

Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays at 3 and 7:30 p.m. and
Sundays at 3 p.m.
with added performances Friday, Nov. 29 at 3 p.m.
Sundays, Dec. 8, 15 and 22 at 7 p.m. and
Monday, Dec. 23 at 7 p.m.


The Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division



Check for Half-Price Deals from Hot Tix:


For full-priced tickets and ticket availability visit the House Theatre website, or call 773.769.3832.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

About the Author:

Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.

Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.


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