Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through Jan. 13, 2019
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” at Lookingglass Theater Company is the most beautifully and meticulously crafted holiday show you’re likely to see this season. And also the saddest.
Conceived and directed by the endlessly inventive Mary Zimmerman, the hour-long piece is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Not a “play” exactly, it draws on some of the traditions of the British Christmas Pantomime like fairy tales, cross-dressing, and dance, but is a far cry from the raucous, bawdy musical-comedy panto with its requisite audience sing-alongs and such.
Except for a final song exhorting us to be “steadfast,” the production is, in fact, wordless. It depends instead on a moving score by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert matched to a feast of visual images that tell a tale of….well, star-crossed love and toy abuse. But more about that in a minute.
The sumptuous scenic design by Todd Rosenthal starts with a stage-spanning advent calendar flanked by paintings of the one-legged tin soldier and featuring little doors for each December day that ensemble members open to reveal seasonal toys and treats. The actors are dressed in costume designer Ana Ruzmanic’s elaborate color-saturated costumes and masks, except for the Nursemaid (Christopher Donahue), who wears a uniform and fearsome frown and wields a feather duster with fierce authority. While this is going on, the four musicians—Leandro López Várady on piano (also the music director), Greg Hirte on violin, Michal Palzewicz on cello, Constance Volk on woodwinds–in period costumes and powdered wigs take their places one by one in the pit.
Then the panels slide open, and we’re transported to a child’s playroom with a Christmas tree, a kitchen/dining room with an oversize cast-iron stove, inside a doll house, out to the city streets, down into the underground sewers, and more. With the help of Blair Thomas and Tom Lee’s Chicago Puppet Studio, Zimmerman keeps changing our perspective as the narrative unfolds. One minute the newly minted tin soldier is a miniature perused by a giant baby’s head and hands floating in the air. The next, our one-legged hero is life-size (Alex Stein), trying to find his footing, and falling in love with the toy Ballerina (Kasey Foster) as they engage in a charming, if awkward, dance (choreography by Tracy Walsh).
Mostly the inherently passive tin soldier needs all the steadfastness he can muster as he’s subjected to undeserved punishments by people, animals, and even other toys. He’s plagued by an evil Jack-in-the-Box Goblin (Anthony Irons) apparently jealous of his love for the Ballerina, cast out the window by a naughty child, fought over and left in the gutter by two youngsters, accosted in the sewers by a giant Rat (John Gregorio), afforded temporary refuge in a paper boat, and finally swallowed by a big puppet fish that’s purchased by the Nursemaid and winds up on the dinner table of his original family.
But if you think there’s a happy ending for the Steadfast Tin Soldier and his Ballerina once he’s back home, think again. The finale—with circus choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi and dramatic lighting by T.J. Gerckens—is transcendent perhaps, but also tragic. It made me cry and punctuated the closing song about the virtue of being steadfast with a big question mark “Why?”
I suspect others may see more of the humor in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and less of the cruelty. It certainly is gorgeous to look at and listen to. But don’t believe the billing as family-friendly entertainment. It’s not for small children and is likely to give them nightmares.