REVIEW: ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ at Lookingglass Theatre is a Whimsical Holiday Treat

Based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a bittersweet tale about love against all odds. This year the annual Lookingglass Theatre tradition is going digital with an on-demand recording of the 2019 production. Ensemble Member Mary Zimmerman’s playful take on this holiday tale is a dazzling treat for the whole family. Invite a little magic into your home with this spellbinding hour of holiday entertainment.

Arrive 30 minutes before showtime for a pre-show featuring a behind-the-scenes look at Lookingglass Theatre. Cast members dressed in Ana Kuzmanic’s elaborate, festive costumes steadily reveal painted toys and other surprises from a giant advent calendar. The welcoming pre-show rumble of murmurs, instruments, and program ruffling felt like being home again. Audience feedback is a standout advantage of pre-recorded theatre productions. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a unified “aww” from the crowd, and these aspects of communal viewing are probably what I miss the most from in-person theatre.

The advent calendar breaks apart to reveal a giant, looming toddler. The three-person puppet opens the production with an undeniable wow factor, a promise of more spellbinding puppetry to come. Properties designer Amanda Herrmann and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal manipulate scale with kaleidoscopic playfulness. The world shrinks and balloons, changing our relationship to the world in the blink of a giant baby’s eye.  Don’t forget to wear your glasses. Text manually written on prop word bubbles and toy blocks is a charming story device that is difficult to read when minimized on the screen. I ended up reading these aloud for my roommate who did not come prepared with their visual aid. Luckily the stream offers multiple ways to watch from your TV for a larger picture.

A remarkably skilled 5-person cast takes on a variety of roles and performance styles with captivating precision. Alex Stein comes to life as the one-legged Tin Soldier, with a warmth that shines through the robotic physicality. Slinking across the stage as a demonic jack-in-the-box, Anthony Irons amazes as the Goblin. Kasey Foster is enchanting as the Ballerina, and Joe Dempsey’s Nursemaid is a cheerful bedrock of the production. John Gregorio delights with a thrilling physical performance, executing balancing acts and feats of athletic spelling. The unified ensemble is further supported by a brilliant group of musicians, led by music director Leandro López Várady.

Dance choreographer Tracy Walsh and circus choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi join forces for a magnificent display of physical performance. Part ballet, part vaudeville, part modern dance, the combination choreography draws inspiration from a variety of styles. Circus spectacle and aerial silks amaze, even if the screen doesn’t quite capture everything. The comedic pantomime is a refreshing reminder about the power of body language. Performers use their bodies to simulate arguments, flirtations, and even miscommunication with stunning clarity. So much of our communication these days has been reduced to what can fit on a video chat, so it was lovely to Zoom out. The Steadfast Tin Soldier 2019 recording is a whimsical live theatre memento that expresses a longing for togetherness, something we are all experiencing this holiday season.

The Steadfast Tin Solider runs from December 1 to December 27.

Joe Dempsey, Nursemaid
Kasey Foster, Ballerina
Anthony Irons, Goblin
John Gregorio, Rat
Alex Stein, The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Leandro López Várady, Piano
Greg Hirte, Violin
Juan Horie, Cello
Emma Hospelhorn, Flutes
Constance Volk, Flutes

Mary Zimmerman, Director/Playwright
Todd Rosenthal, Scenic Designer
Ana Kuzmanic, Costume Designer
T.J. Gerckens, Lighting Designer
Andre Pluessco, Sound Designer/Co-Composer
Amanda Dehnert, Co-Composer
Christopher M. Laporte, Co-Sound Designer
Leandro López Várady, Music Director/Associate Arranger
Tracy Walsh, Dance Choreographer
Chicago Puppet Studio, Puppet Design
Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi, Circus Choreographer
Amanda Herrmann, Properties Designer
Rigability Inc., Rigging Designer
Katrina Herrmann, Assistant Stage Manager

PHOTO: Joe Dempsey, Ensemble Member Anthony Irons, John Gregorio, and Ensemble Member Kasey Foster. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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