Offering a new fantastical family-friendly treat, Round House Theatre continues its 2014-15 season with a spectacularly re-imagined contemporary adaptation of a beloved classic – The Nutcracker, a new holiday musical created by Tommy Rapley, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, and Kevin O’Donnell. Directed by the award-winning Joe Calarco, The Nutcracker made its area premiere at Round House Theatre in Bethesda last night, delivering oodles of brimming cheer and merriment.
Set on a resplendent red-floored stage with a colorfully decorated tree and festive adornments, The Nutcracker opens in a modern American home, beginning with a rush of excitement and Christmas bliss as young Clara (Lauren Williams) and her family prepare for the return of her brother Fritz (Vincent Kempski) from war, but when a soldier unexpectedly appears at their door with a folded American flag, that warm wave of positivity and joy is instantly replaced by cold grief and despair.
A year later, Clara’s parents (Mitchell Hébert and Sherri L. Edelen) are still mourning the death of her older brother, Fritz, in Iraq and decide that the family will no longer celebrate Christmas. That is, until Uncle Drosselmeyer (Lawrence Redmond) steps in, delivering to the grieving military household a gift he has handcrafted, a nutcracker bearing the exact likeness of Fritz.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich’s progressive story recognizes that the holidays can be a painful experience for those families that have suffered a loss. Committing to those darker, more mature elements gives the production enormous emotional depth, and it provides a striking point of contrast for the lighter, sillier moments when Clara embarks on her journey with her toys as they try to save Christmas.
Like all the classic children’s tales that equally appeal to adults, The Nutcracker contains stages of sublime hilarity set against a backdrop of a difficult milestone. For this family, it will be processing the unhealed wounds of a fallen soldier son and brother one year from the Christmas Eve when a sword and folded flag arrived in his stead.
Enters wily and mysterious, old vagabond Uncle Drosselmeyer who never got the note that the family’s annual Christmas party has been canceled, arriving a few days early with a “pre-Christmas” present for his great-niece Clara. Much to her delight—and her parent’s chagrin—it is a large nutcracker carved in the likeness of their beloved Fritz. Since his death, mother Martha and father David have become withdrawn and, inevitably, distant to each other and to their daughter. In place of Martha’s illustrious holiday cookies, only the smell of pizza bagels wafts through the house. No lights or Christmas tree or presents adorn the living room. Uncle Drosselmeyer knows that to clean a puncture wound of this ilk, sometimes you have to reopen the wound at the surface and drive out the “infection” below. With a bit of help from the magic he has somehow acquired, presumably on his world wanderings, he begins the adventure to knit his wayward family back together.
At the stroke of midnight, Fritz returns from beyond, ready to help his beloved kid sister revive the spirit of the holidays. Rushing to their aid are Clara’s three favorite dolls—nerdy robot Hugo (Evan Casey), loveable ditz Phoebe (Erin Weaver), and a French sock monkey (Will Gartshore). Unbeknownst to them, the forces of the rats that live within the house walls are working to undermine their Christmastime efforts. Rats, as the audience comes to find out, despise the brightness and noise of the holidays, and have found the perfect nest in the forlorn walls of Clara’s family house. Here, they plan to bring about a true Rat King of legend if Clara and her team do not strike fast with the sword of cookies, lights and caroling to drive them back into the darkness. This provides a bit of a Catch 22 for the young Clara: it is only in that darkness that the magic that brings her brother to life can exist. Drive it away, and only the painful harsh light of day—and the truth of his absence—will remain.
Under Joe Calarco’s skillful direction, the entire cast and artistic team are outstanding and simply spectacular throughout the production. It is no surprise the members of the ensemble have won a combined 33 Helen Hayes Awards. Lawrence Redmond brings great warmth and quirkiness as Uncle Drosselmeyer. Redmond is persuasive as the winking eccentric who always knows more than he is saying, living in a world halfway between whimsy and reality.
Mitchell Hébert and Sherri L. Edelen capture the quietly tortured dynamic that makes parents Martha and David such heartbreaking characters, equally adept at portraying parents in deep mourning who cannot understand their daughter’s insistence in the magic around them.
Vincent Kempski as Fritz/Nutcracker is endearing and credible as the brave and devoted brother who knows in his heart that he is back on borrowed time.
Lauren Williams plays Clara with a steady blend of optimistic naïveté and apprehensive denial. Williams steals the show with her projection of vulnerability tinged with resolve, an impressive voice, and the aching tenderness of a little girl who understands it is time to grow up and put away her toys.
Balancing out the underlying dramatic family tension, Will Gartshore, Evan Casey, and Erin Weaver bring the hilarity and exuberance as Clara’s living toys. Clara’s larger-than-life toys are the characters that really pull the younger viewers into the story, and they create a welcoming environment that provides comfort during some of the play’s spookier scenes. Round House’s The Nutcracker is certainly appropriate for nearly all ages (five and over), but it is not afraid to get a little scary at times, and that willingness to go dark ultimately strengthens the power of the story’s uplifting elements.
Further amplifying the cast’s kinetic energy are Jake Minton and Kevin O’Donnell’s lovely and wistful custom carols strikingly performed by Music Director/Pianist/Conductor William Yanesh, as well as the four-piece orchestra. What’s more, the behind-the-scenes staff deserves considerable credit for enhancing the enchantment of this tale. James Kronzer has created an ingeniously immersive set stage, expanded by Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting designs. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design and Helen Huang’s costumes are all notably crafted with great attention to detail and precision.
A perfect holiday gift to theatre-goers, Round House Theatre’s refreshing reinvention of The Nutcracker is a fun, touching, and uplifting holiday musical full of humor and heart. Woven with a delightful original score, riveting dialogue, wonderful puppetry, beautiful song and spellbinding spectacle, Round House Theatre’s The Nutcracker comes alive with dazzling theatricality, captivatingly chronicling a moving story of magic and mystery that the entire family will applaud.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.