Renegade’s Nutcracker

Renegade Theater Company is known for stepping where others dare not tread. They’re doing it again with “Nutcracker”, a new version of the old, E.T.A Hoffman nut. The winding fairy tale, first spun in the early 1800’s, was translated into French by Alexandre Dumas, pere, then made into a ballet by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. His orchestrated ballet became especially dear to U.S. audiences beginning in the 1960’s.  

Though battles of toys and mice are not my annual custom, I did enjoy the Minnesota Ballet’s Victorian version some years ago. Renegade’s precocious new production, hailing from Chicago with book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, and music by Kevin O’Donnell, is a harder nut to crack.

My son and one of his business colleagues were guests of mine last week, so it was three perspectives I  walked out with. Encompassing our reactions were son, Ian’s words, “it’s a story for kids”. And he was touched.

There are plenty of changes from the various 19th century versions of this pretty scary story. First of all, little boy Fritz has grown up, become a soldier, and lost his life. All that returns for Christmas is a sword. His family decide to tear down the decorations and to each hide within their grief. Little sister, Clara, begins to see dark beings swirl around her. Are those mice? In this story, it’s rats.

We follow the family over a number of Christmases. Uncle Drosselmeyer (Zach Stofer) comes from “Katmandu by way of Halifax”, demanding Christmas cookies with walnuts and dried plums, cookies the family no longer makes. Zach Stofer, one of the show’s plums, patiently guides the family back to health. At times, he seems a therapist.

Clara (Kier Zimmerman) relates to her collection of dolls: a robot, a Raggedy Ann and a monkey boy. When Zimmerman sings she sometimes touches an Ethel Merman sound, a little over the top for this play. And composer O’Donnell’s first song leaves a lot to be desired melodically, but his tunes pick up as the show goes on.

Uncle has given his grandniece a nutcracker, one he’s carved to look like her lost brother. And lo! The toys and the Fritzcracker all turn to life, ready to join Clara and make Christmas. But the ratty pack come out of the walls, determined to stop all.

Actor Evan Kelly gives our French monkey doll some punch. A saucy, racy guy who whizzes their names in the snow, I question whether I really heard him use the term ‘clausterfiki’? He and his clan soon engage the rats in a fight, the first to come. Choreographer Amber Burns and Vocal Coach/Dance Captain Jenna Kelly give us bunches of inventive jousts, with victors right and left. The rats engage in sinister tail-slapping dances, slithering off the stage apron, trying to take Christmas even from the audience. Then they promise the Rat King.

We learn from Uncle how the monster, Rat King, was born in the dark ages, how Christmas is about putting out light during the darkest part of the year. “The light is just the dark with the light switched on”. And the rats hate the light.

Prop and Mask Designer, Erin Ohland, comes up with some alternative ‘weapons’ for the dolls. Costume Designer, Kathleen Martin, ultimately garbs Clara with a great ‘gladiator’ outfit, and she goes into the darkest of darkness to overcome.

The Chicago version surely makes more sense than the older “Nutcracker”: a family coming to grips with tremendous loss, and their young daughter truly tackling everyone’s grief.

However, a word about rats. My own grandchildren have pets, Cubby and Bear, in the freezer, waiting for burial. They are rat lovers, now with new replacements. They even enjoying those picky little feet across their necks and arms. What would they say about how the “Nutcracker” has relegated some of their favorite animals in the world?

Renegade Theater “Nutcracker” runs December 13-15 and December 20-22 at 8pm.