The House Theatre of Chicago has come back to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts bearing a holiday gift: a stage version of The Nutcracker that is a distant cousin to the adored, widely performed ballet.
Sure, both are taken from the E.T.A. Hoffmann story about a little girl whose toys come to life, with a treasured nutcracker leading the battle against an army of pesky rodents. But the ballet and the play are markedly different artistic interpretations of the material.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, which Miami City Ballet will perform at the Broward Center Dec. 14-16 and on the Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House stage Dec. 20-24, is a period piece, a sumptuous visual feast danced to that oh-so-familiar Tchaikovsky score. The House Nutcracker, presented in the cozy Carnival Studio Theater, is an edgier contemporary play-with-music. Staged by Tommy Rapley, it mixes fantasy, double-entendre humor and, heads up for parents, a few truly scary moments that can make it upsetting for some little ones.
With a script by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, music by Kevin O’Donnell and lyrics by Minton, the theatrical Nutcracker focuses on a family whose joyous Christmas celebration is shattered by tragedy.
Mother Martha (Renata Eastlick), father David (Josh Odor) and their daughter Clara (Mary Sansone) are putting the final touches on their tree, serving cookies and welcoming guests as they anticipate the arrival of Clara’s older brother Fritz (Joey Stone), a soldier coming home for the holidays. They frolic with their friends and Martha’s eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer (John Wilson) as they wait. At last the doorbell chimes, but outside is another soldier bearing a folded flag, a sword and terrible news: Fritz has been killed in combat.
This roller-coaster dip from excitement to sorrow begins the play, which then jumps a year to the approach of the following Christmas. Martha and David are on edge and in mourning, planning to ignore a holiday that has turned emotionally fraught. Drosselmeyer shows up with a custom-made nutcracker for Clara, who is delighted with a gift that looks exactly like Fritz.
Still, everything is off in the house, which has been invaded by a scary, Christmas-hating, British-accented trio of rats (Eastlick, Odor and Wilson). So it is up to the resourceful Clara and her trusty toys – doll Phoebe (Sarah Bockel), the Monkey (Zeke Sulkes), robot Hugo (Joey Steakley) and nutcracker Fritz (Stone) – to vanquish the rats and recapture the joy of Christmas.
Accompanied by six musicians (including composer O’Donnell), the cast of Chicago and Miami actors delivers the show’s eclectic songs well, the loveliest being a soothing one sung by Fritz to his little sis.
Collette Pollard’s nostalgic in-the-round scenic design places the audience inside the family’s home, with no one far from the action – great in terms of emotional intimacy, not so hot when giant rat-head puppets with glowing red eyes and dagger-like teeth finally appear. Costume designer Debbie Baer contributes colorful, fanciful getups for the toys and stylishly quirky outfits for the humans and rats (love the two-toned shoes on the rat trio). Lee Keenan’s lighting design amplifies the play’s scariest moments, as do the rat squeaks supplied by sound designer Michael Griggs.
Director Rapley seamlessly blends his cast of Chicago and Miami actors. The waif-like Sansone, a Barry University grad, is throughly credible as a plucky young girl. New World School of the Arts alumna Eastlick brings an anchoring presence to Martha and a vivacious playfulness to her rat character, while both Odor and Wilson shine brighter as her rodent cohorts than they do as David and Drosselmeyer. Stone is a sharp, amusing, comforting Fritz. Bockel is cute as afraid-of-the-dark Phoebe, Steakley funny as the lightbulb-topped Hugo and Sulkes a goofy French-accented Monkey, who tells Eastlick’s rat that he wants to smooch her on her “ boca ratón.”
In theater, almost anything is possible. The House Nutcracker proves that yet again, as a child helps heal her parents, magic trumps mourning, and soft snow falls inside a theater in tropical Miami, blanketing one and all in holiday cheer.