Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Lookingglass Theatre
by John Olson


Anthony Irons, Joe Dempsey, and John Gregorio
Photo by Liz Lauren
Hans Christian Andersen's stories have done quite well for contemporary theater and filmmakers. A homegrown adaption of Andersen's "The Snow Queen" was done by Victory Gardens Theater for four consecutive holiday seasons from 2006 to 2009 and as you may have heard, Disney's musical take on the story, Frozen, has done quite nicely on film as well as on stage. Last year, Lookingglass Theatre and writer-director Mary Zimmerman dug a little deeper into the Andersen canon and came up with a new theatre piece that appears quite deservedly to have the same sort of legs as Victory Gardens' Snow Queen productions of a decade and more ago. Zimmerman's adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier is both accessible and artistic, comprehensible and entertaining enough for young audiences and thoughtful enough for adults.

Zimmerman tells Andersen's tale of a discarded metal toy mostly through mime and dance, with visual inventiveness that is low tech yet spectacular and a cast of five performers who, in creating multiple characters, seem to be a much larger troupe. The story concerns a toy tin soldier (Alex Stein) that is missing one leg, a disability suggested by Stein's costume with trousers sporting one black leg in his otherwise red uniform. The damaged toy is tossed aside by the toddler to whom it was given as a Christmas present. Though presumably an inanimate object, the soldier has feelings, and falls in love with a paper ballerina (Kasey Foster). Making his way into the dollhouse where the ballerina resides, the two enjoy a dance of sorts.

Stein, with the help of choreographer Tracy Walsh, makes some brilliant comic moves as the one-legged soldier tries to dance with the ballerina. Their connection is interrupted when a romantic rival, a jack-in-the-box goblin (Anthony Irons), engineers the soldier being tossed out the window of the real house onto the street below. There, two boys find him and place him in a paper boat. After paying toll to a rat (John Gregorio), he sails in the boat down into a sewer. The boat is later washed into a canal where the soldier is eaten by a fish. When the fish is caught and served to the same family that had originally bought the toy, the soldier is freed when the fish is cut open. He is briefly reunited with the ballerina before another plot twist provides a bittersweet ending to the lives and love of the two toys.

Zimmerman's production uses scenery and puppetry both small and human-sized to change perspective from that of the tiny toys to the toddler's and the adults'. A toy-sized dollhouse becomes a human-sized home. Painted backdrops (scenic design by Todd Rosenthal) and colorful props (by Amanda Herrmann) take us from the playroom through the streets and the sewers and back into the family's dining room. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes turn the cast of five into who knows how many characters, among them Joe Dempsey's hilarious drag nursemaid. The lovely original musical score by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert accompanies throughout, played by an orchestra of piano, violin, cello, and two flutes.

With an inanimate piece of metal as our hero, we're allowed to laugh at the pratfalls so cleverly created in the piece's physical humor. But Andersen, ever the champion of underdogs like "The Ugly Duckling," reminds us not to assume it's not okay to disregard or discard those that may seem on the surface to have little value.

Just 60 minutes long, The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a fine addition to Chicago's stable of holiday shows and an even better testament to the city's theatrical artistry.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier runs through January 26, 2020, at Lookingglass Theatre, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL. For tickets and further information, visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.


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