Christmas isn’t only the season of giving, receiving and familial travel, it’s also the season of theatrical traditions. My family drives a number of hours to watch the complete 3 hour Handel’s Messiah while other families see The Christmas Carol with grandparents, some Nativity play at a church, or many others. For me though, the most heart-stoppingly, jaw-clenchingly terrifying potential Christmas performance is the dreaded Nutcracker Ballet. Equal parts saccharine, boring, and creepy, I live in fear of a family member casually suggesting that the family go to a rendition of the ballet. Perhaps you feel the same.
If you do, you might have apprehensions about The Nutcracker, a new holiday musical playing at Round House Theatre. I certainly did. But don’t be afraid of this one; this is a show that’s entertaining, moving, and literally fantastic throughout.
Show creators Tommy Rapley, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, and Kevin O’Donnell have taken Hoffman’s original short story, broken it down into its constituent mythical parts and used those parts to tell their own story. There’s elements to recognize here: a little girl driven by fantasy, toys coming to life, the Rat King, and a weird magic uncle. But they’ve added their own more complex elements: coping with devastating loss, subtle and strife-filled parental relationships, childhood mania, and celebrating Christmas even when you don’t feel like it.
I won’t give you a blow-by-blow of the plot, because much of the fun in this play is seeing what the creators do with the Nutcracker tropes. But the opening scene, an homage to the original ballet in that it is mainly composed of music and movement, tells the story of how a family Christmas party, full of the expectation of the return of a soldiering son, is instead crushed by the news of his demise. This short prologue is one of the more beautiful scenes of theatre I’ve seen this year, and it really showcases Joe Calarco’s talents as a director. If you’re a Pixar fan, you’ll recognize a storytelling brilliance on par with the montage from Up. You know, the one when you cried so hard your eyes hurt.
Fortunately, the show isn’t all emotional body blows. The main story of the play is about the soldier’s sister, Clara, and how she deals with her family’s loss and its inevitable association with Christmas. Lauren Williams plays Clara with crisp, watery-eyed brightness and a smart take on a child who is undergoing adult-level stress.
She’s contrasted well by very down-to-earth parents, played by Mitchell Hébert and Sherri L. Edelen (both local heavy-hitters) whose excellent restraint and powerful subtlety form the emotional core of the play. Lawrence Redmond rounds out the cast of “real characters” with his magical Uncle Drosselmeyer. Redmond is so ensconced in the character that I had to look at the program several times to ensure that it was actually him, and not some other actor creating the mischievous air of mystery that ran so beautifully through his character arc.
These same actors also have roles as rats in Clara’s intriguing fantasy of living toys and anthropomorphic dreams. Edelen in particular embodies her curiously Cockney rat with exceptional verve. But the real stars of Clara’s fantasy are her come-to-life toys, with Erin Weaver as a talking doll, Evan Casey as an information-toting robot, and Will Gartshore as a frenchified and appropriately naughty sock monkey. These characters are Clara’s minor sidekicks on her adventures, providing quippy comedy and a bit of silly play to counteract the seriousness of the subject matter. Their game is to take qualities of the toy they come alive from and translate those into interesting actions and to keep those choices consistent throughout the production. Erin Weaver is by far the most successful of the three, and although she’s limited only to the lines programmed into her pull cord, her restriction bred strong creativity in her choices.
The character of the last toy that comes alive, the eponymous Nutcracker played by Vincent Kempski, contains the most dramatic shift from the Hoffman short story and the ballet: the Nutcracker is no longer the soldier of romantic interest and kidnapping plots of the ballet, but the soldier who was Clara’s brother. In his protective older brother role, Kempski excels in moments of seriousness,confusion, or tenderness with Williams, and their rapport gives a sweetness to the show that is crucial to any holiday theater outing.
Speaking of necessary elements to a holiday show, this production has spectacle in spades. The simple red lacquered floor on James Kronzer’s set is striking, and he’s pick the perfect Pantone iteration that practically screams Christmas. His deceptively simple set (there’s more to meet the eye here) is given excellent texture by Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lights. Wagner manages to give the audience a nice sense of place and a Christmas-y feel with his choice of patterns while not distracting from the actors. There is a particularly brilliant high intensity flashing light effect that made for one of the best comedic moments in the show. Helen Huang’s costumes are particularly charming as well, combining moments of easy understanding of a character through costume with moments of “Ooooh, how did she do that?”
Closes December 28, 2014
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
What didn’t seem worth it, in the scheme of the whole show, was the music. This play is a musical, though it isn’t clear why. None of the songs felt complete, melodic, or really justified as moments. The only genuine chill-inducer came from a moment in song that was more to the credit of the book and lyric’s setup than the music itself. I’d be more happy with this as a straight play, but I understand that many theatregoers expect some tunes with their holiday shows. I just wish these ones weren’t as tuneless.
Despite indifference to the music, the play as a whole is quite charming. It’s nice to see a holiday show that isn’t afraid to take on tough and relevant themes but can still lay the tinsel on thick. I’d especially recommend this show for young adults, a genre not often or easily addressed in the theater world, despite its literary popularity. So if one of your family members casually suggests seeing the Nutcracker, guide them toward this one, and everyone will have a solid experience.
The Nutcracker . Created by Tommy Rapley, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, and Kevin O’Donnell . Book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich . Music by Kevin O’Donnell, Lyrics by Jake Minton . Based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann . Directed by Joe Calarco . Featuring Evan Casey, Sherri L. Edelen, Mitchell Hébert, Will Gartshore, Vincent Kempski, Lawrence Redmond, Erin Weaver, and Lauren Williams . Musical Director: William Yanesh . Scenic Designer: James Kronzer . Costume Designer: Helen Huang . Lighting Designer: Daniel MacLean Wagner . Sound Designer: Matthew M. Nielson . Props Designer: Jennifer Crier Johnston . Stage Manager: Bekah Wackenfeld . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.
Closes Dec 28
Jonelle Walker . DCist The adult humor sprinkled throughout the piece will make the grown-ups chuckle, but they’ll be just as likely to laugh along with the kids at dumb puns the rats make of the word “play.”
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly Erin Weaver all but steals the show
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway a major disappointment.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post It’s an in-between “Nutcracker”: between kiddie and adult, between slapstick musical and grim drama, never entirely finding its tone.
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide The problem with starting an ostensibly family holiday play with a crushing death is that it’s tough to recover from and the more wacky things get on stage the odder everything becomes.
Heather Nadolny . BroadwayWorld It balances out grief with guffaws, and works on heartstring-tugging themes that anyone can relate to as they go through the holidays remembering lost loved ones.