By Peter Thomas Ricci
Lookingglass Theatre’s production of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” has become a holiday tradition in Chicago, and for good reason – lovely, whimsical, and with enough creativity for three productions (let alone one), “Tin Soldier” represents the finest qualities of Chicago theater, and seeing its most recent iteration was an absolute delight.
The plot, which advances without any dialogue, is a marvel of simplicity: a child is playing with some tin soldiers, but upon noticing that one of them is missing a leg, he discards it and busies himself in other ways. That brave soldier (played with charm by Alex Stein) then experiences a number of adventures, including: the furious dusting of the home’s nursemaid (Joe Dempsey); a doll house, where he dances with an elegant ballerina (Kasey Foster) and battles with a mischievous goblin (Anthony Irons); a sewer, where he sails on a paper boat past a pesky rat (John Gregorio); and the bitter winter cold, where two hobos (Irons and Gregorio) fight over him. Scene to scene, the show’s superb cast tackles multiple roles with aplomb, bringing an energy and style that merges classic vaudeville with modern technique.
All the while, the soldier’s voyage is narrated by the production’s amazing qualities, all operating under the expert direction of Mary Zimmerman. For starters, Andre Pluess/Amanda Dehnert’s original score is as true to the season as Frasier Firs and egg nog, and the musicianship (under the direction of Leandro López Várady) is first rate. Todd Rosenthal’s ingenious scenic design is apparent from the onset, as actors manipulate an enormous December calendar in the run-up to the show’s start. And Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes are nostalgic without being tacky, and lend a visual vibrancy to the action.
It’s hard, making fairy tales work nowadays. While Disney remains mired in the Marvel universe and animated films move in increasingly outlandish directions, the classic fairy tale – wondrous, frightening, and ultimately, both deeply melancholic and profound – does not receive the attention it deserves. All of which is to say that what Zimmerman and her company pull off in “Steadfast Tin Soldier” is vital. Here is children’s entertainment that is not corny, not glib, not obsessed with spectacle and glamour at the expense of character and theme – children’s entertainment that, in other words, trusts it audience as real people with complex emotions, not consumes servicing a profit.
And that, above all else, is why you should see this production.
Playing at Lookingglass Theater at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, through Jan. 26, 2020.
Tickets are available at lookingglasstheatre.org or 312-337-0665.