A new Christmas pantomime tradition

‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’

Cast of The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Cast of The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

Returning for a second holiday season at Lookingglass Theatre, Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeous adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story of love and valor warms the heart and nourishes the soul.

From the moment we enter, we’re put in the holiday mood by a curtain transformed into a gigantic Advent calendar.

While four powdered-wigged musicians begin playing in the show’s petite orchestra pit, the cast enters the stage, one-by-one, clothed in Ana Kuzmanic’s delicious, brightly colored, exquisitely detailed costumes. Each character opens one of 25 tiny doors and reacts to the images behind them.

The final door reveals the titular character and the pantomime begins. By the conclusion of the play the audience will understand the significance of each image.

In the first scene, a very young boy opens his Christmas gift. Inside one of the boxes, he discovers a collection of tiny, tin, toy soldiers. One of the soldiers, however, was the last one to be cast from the metal which apparently ran out, so he’s missing a leg.

As the soldier gazes about the nursery, he spies a dollhouse containing a  beautiful paper-doll ballerina poised on one leg. Immediately the tin soldier relates to and falls in love with her. However, another toy,  a maliciously grinning Jack-in-the-Box (really an evil goblin) becomes jealous.

He magically causes the tin soldier to fall out of the window and into the street that’s been flooded by all the rain. Two mischievous young lads spot the soldier and, after folding a piece of newspaper into a boat, they set the one-legged toy sailing through the gutters.

The boat with the tin soldier plunges down a storm sewer and eventually works its way to the river. There a hungry bass swallows the soldier, but is eventually caught by a fisherman.

The fishmonger sells the bass to a cook who prepares it for her family’s dinner. Ironically, she’s a member of the household of the little boy who once owned the steadfast tin soldier.

What happens next are part of the evil machinations of the jealous goblin. The story ends tragically with the ballerina and the soldier becoming reunited for eternity.

 

Anthony Irons, Joe Dempsey, and John Gregorio in The Steadfast Tin Soldier. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Anthony Irons, Joe Dempsey, and John Gregorio in The Steadfast Tin Soldier. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Anthony Irons, Joe Dempsey, and John Gregorio. Photo by Liz Laure

This is one more of the many dark fairy tales written by famed Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen. In the early 19th century he wrote dozens of stories for children, such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Snow Queen,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling.” However, unlike his other tales of fantasy, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” was Andersen’s first story that was completely original.

Throughout the years, the popular fairy tale has been adapted by other writers and translated into many formats, such as picture books, songs, animated feature films, TV movies, ballets and stage plays. However, in this brand-new family-friendly holiday play, written and brilliantly directed by multi award-winning playwright, Mary Zimmerman, the story is presented as an English Christmas Pantomime.

It contains no spoken dialogue, but features, through Lookingglass Theatre’s unique style of storytelling, color, comedy, spectacle, glitz, musi cand memorable characters, all in an enchanting, heartbreaking story of love. It’s a tale of undaunted bravery and faithful devotion.

Staged upon a large, beautifully detailed, life-size puppet theatre, elegantly designed by Todd Rosenthal, the play is dazzlingly lit by T.J. Gerckens and features several majestic, lifelike puppets created by the Chicago Puppet Studio.

The Baby that opens the show, for instance, is a masterpiece of creativity. Amanda Herrmann provides her own artistry in the design and creation of dozens of props and miniatures. Original music was co-composed by Amanda Dehnert and Andre Pluess, who also co-designed the show’s sound with Christopher M. LaPorte.

The production is musically directed and accompanied on the piano/harpsichord by Leandro Lopez Varady. His compact orchestra includes Greg Hirte on violin, Juan Horie on cello and Constance Volk on flutes, alternating at some performances with Emma Hospelhorn.

Joe Dempsey, Alex Stein, John Gregorio, and Anthony Irons. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Joe Dempsey, Alex Stein, John Gregorio, and Anthony Irons. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Amazingly, the cast is composed of just five talented, versatile actors, almost all of them playing multiple roles. Alex Stein majestically reprises his role as the Tin Soldier. His portrayal of innocence, strength and steadfast determination make his character a lovable new hero for young audience members.

Playing several roles, Kasey Foster also returns to this production. She’s particularly lovely, graceful and empathetic as the paper Ballerina, although she makes a feisty little street urchin, as well.

John Gregorio is back. Among the many demanding roles he plays, the nasty River Rat and the lovestruck Fishmonger are standouts. Anthony Irons revisits this production, once again playing the evil, maniacal Goblin/Jack-in-the-Box, among many, many other characters.

Always a favorite at Lookingglass Theatre and wonderful in any role he undertakes, Joe Dempsey plays the properly starched Edwardian Nursemaid/Cook this year, adding the perfect amount of coquetry and feistiness. The gifted actor doubles in several other roles, as well.

This magical family production, beautifully written and inventively directed by Zimmerman, has returned for another holiday season at Lookingglass Theatre. The company never fails to enchant, mystify and, while impressing its audience with skill and talent, always manages to squeeze in a valuable lesson, or two. At just 60-minutes, the welcome return of this wonderful production is no exception.

Zimmerman’s stylish holiday fantasy was written with an attention to detail and directed by the playwright with jaw-dropping artistry, polish, flair and finesse. The entire cast, the pit  musicians and technical team who support this show are all first-rate. Collectively they offer Chicago families with a second chance to behold this must-see entertainment choice for the holidays.

DETAILS: “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is at Lookingglass Theatre in the historic Water Tower Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson St., Chicago through Jan. 26, 2020. For tickets and other information call (312) 337-0665 or visit Lookingglass Theatre.

Colin Douglas

Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting Theatre In Chicago.

 

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