Review: “The Nutcracker” (The House Theatre)

Realizing their magical reunion is only temporary, Fritz and Clara share their Christmas wishes for one another.    Jaclyn Hennell as Clara and Shaun Baer as Fritz.   Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Realizing their magical reunion is only temporary, Fritz and Clara share their Christmas wishes for one another. Jaclyn Hennell as Clara and Shaun Baer as Fritz.
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Show: The Nutcracker

Company: The House Theatre

Venue: The Chopin Theater

Die Roll: 10

The House Theatre has been producing their dark, non-ballet version of “The Nutcraker” off and on since 2007.  But, because it is an ensemble created piece, the show changes every year.  Just because you may have seen it before doesn’t mean that you know what this year will be like.  For me, the 2014 iteration of the work is my first encounter with it.  And it was a terrific way to start my holidays off right.

From the first moments, darkness descends on the household of Clara (Jaclyn Hennell) and her parents.  Clara’s brother Fritz (Shaun Baer) doesn’t show up for the family Christmas party.  Instead, a soldier bearing a folded flag lets us know that Fritz won’t be making it back… ever.

A year passes, the family is falling apart.  The death of their son/brother fills the halls of the house, and the people within them blame themselves and each other.  One family member, who arrives just in time for what he expects to be the celebration of the year, decides to try to heal the wounds within the family.  Uncle Drosselmeyer (played by Karl Potthoff) is the one who delivers the nutcracker to Clara in the original book, the traditional ballet, and here as well.  The difference in this play is that the nutcracker is a dead ringer for her deceased brother.  And so, when the nutcracker comes to life after dark, he is a resurrection of Fritz.

There are songs, which barely rise to the point of being memorable, which is a shame, as the show itself stands out in a number of ways, especially in the second act.  The first half struggles to know if it is targeted at 7 year-olds, or someone else.  The second act accomplishes what the show sets out to do, appealing to both young ones and their parents alike, in the best tradition of Looney Tunes, The Muppets, Pixar, and the Animaniacs.

The show is presented in the round, and it is beautifully staged.  The movement/dance pieces that make up the better part of the play are impressive.  It’s a shame to me that the music didn’t rise to the occasion, especially since Baer’s voice is a treasure.  The physical acting that brings to life the villainous rats and the puppetry that makes them larger than life are the bits of theatrical magic that make a House show worth going to.  Double casting the parents as the villains carried more weight than might be clear to younger audiences, but it was a nice touch, too.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Clara’s toy is Clara’s brother.  Her parents are scary rats.

RATING:  d12 “Heckuva Good Show”