Theater Review: THE STEADFAST TIN SOLDIER (Lookingglass)

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by Tony Frankel and Lawrence Bommer on December 1, 2020

in Theater-Chicago,Virtual


This “soldier” is well worth saluting: There’s an enchanting Christmas Pantomime streaming from Michigan Avenue in Chicago — Lookingglass Theatre Company’s jewel-box of a holiday divertissement. Transformed by music, dance and spectacle more than by words and lyrics, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale from 1838, is the perfect recipient for director Mary Zimmerman’s multifaceted magic. From Lookingglass and Berkeley Rep to your home anywhere in the world, you’re treated to pretty and playful processions, whiplash alterations in scale and size, and an ever-ornamentalizing imagination that sees consummate textures, patterns, and resonances in everything on stage. Zimmerman’s open-eyed dreams are always deliciously detailed, beautifully recorded with a multi-camera shoot.

Joe Dempsey, Anthony Irons, John Gregorio, and Kasey Foster. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In only one hour, five “zanies,” dolled up in Ana Kuzmanic’s properly pictorial costumes (as well as four musicians in court costume and perruques), enact some very potent make-believe. It all transpires beneath Todd Rosenthal’s elegant 18th-century proscenium, a Mozartean marvel in itself.

Joe Dempsey, Anthony Irons, John Gregorio, and Kasey Foster. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Initially, we see a giant replica of an Advent calendar with pop-up “Cornell boxes” for each date leading to Christmas. As the final “window” is opened, we see a model of Andersens’s one-legged tin soldier, standing at attention, ready to begin his adventure.

Alex Stein. Photo by Liz Lauren.

It’s a tale of unrequited love between two marvelous misfits: the toy Soldier (Alex Stein), whose mold ran out of metal before he could get a second leg, and a paper Ballerina (Kasey Foster) who, according to the original, also has only one leg and wears a large spangle. Despite their different materials, the toys were clearly made for each other. By the end they find themselves consumed by love (and fire).

Joe Dempsey and John Gregorio. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Along the way Zimmerman pulls out all her proverbial stops, displaying or depicting letter blocks, dollhouses, giant puppets, silhouettes, silent-movie buffoonery, circus acrobatics, a potbelly stove, silken waves, and other delights.

The cast of THE STEADFAST TIN SOLDIER. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Like the characters in Toy Story, our steadfast tin soldier and his inamorata (who’s always en pointe) come to life. But they’re soon separated, partly due to a little boy’s shenanigans and the negligence of an indifferent Nursemaid (Joe Dempsey). But the lovers’ chief nemesis is a jack-in-the-box Goblin (Anthony Irons), who schemes to have the dancer for himself. There’s also a Rat (John Gregorio) who functions as a toll-demanding passport supervisor to impede the soldier’s return to his beloved.

Anthony Irons and Kasey Foster, and Joe Dempsey. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Written by composers Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert, a final chorus — the only text in the production — praises the soldier for his fidelity to his dream love, despite his enervating passivity and stupid stoicism, and wishes us all a similar steadfastness. We should be so true to our trusts.

John Gregorio and Kasey Foster and Anthony Irons. Photo by Liz Lauren.

A fit compliment to the nicest Noel, this captivating, storytelling “music box” fantasy bursts with theatrical wonders in full flower. An elaborate extravaganza to feast the senses and sweeten the soul, The Steadfast Tin Soldier is pure confection. What remains remarkable about Zimmerman’s matchless make-believe is her use of rapid-fire changes of size and pace. The title hero keeps changing stature as the plot thickens, while a five-member court orchestra mirrors in music every change in his ever-evolving fate.

Zimmerman particularly wants to appeal to children, “gathering up the story through the intensity of their earnest attention, through their intelligence which has no words.”

Indeed! You just have to go through the Lookingglass.

Kasey Foster and Anthony Irons, and Joe Dempsey. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Musicians are Leandro López Várady (Music Director/Piano), Greg Hirte (Violin), Juan Horie (Cello), and Constance Volk (Flutes).

Kasey Foster and Anthony Irons, and Joe Dempsey. Photo by Liz Lauren.

More Creative Team:  TJ Gerckens (lighting design), Mr. Pluess and Christopher M. LaPorte (sound design), Leandro López Várady (associate arranger), Tracy Walsh (choreography), Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi (circus choreography), Chicago Puppet Studio (puppet design), Amanda Herrmann (properties), Rigability Inc. (rigging design), Katrina Herrmann (stage manager), and Liz Anne Larsen (assistant stage manager).

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

photos by Liz Lauren

The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Lookingglass Theatre Company
available December 1-27, 2020
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass and Berkeley Rep

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