BWW Reviews: THE NUTCRACKER at Round House Theatre Presents Updated Flair for Families

This season, Round House Theatre in Bethesda brings an updated, musical version of THE NUTCRACKER, in the hopes of making it a new theatrical holiday tradition. Created by TOMMY RAPLEY, JAKE MINTON, PHILLIP KLAPPERICH and KEVIN O'DONNELL, this production features no ballet shoes, and the only sugar plums come in holiday cookies. It's a fun show, but it does have some oddities.

The characters you may remember from the ballet or E.T.A. Hoffmann's short story "The Nutcracker and Mouse King" are basically still there. The show begins with a joyful family holiday interrupted by the news that Fritz (VINCENT KEMPSKI), the older child, has died in war. A year later, Clara (LAUREN WILLIAMS) watches as her parents trudge around the house, avoiding each other, and failing to find Christmas spirit. Her eccentric Uncle Drosselmeier (LAWRENCE REDMOND) arrives with a nutcracker who looks just like Fritz, sending Clara and her faithful toys on an adventure to bring the family back together, and Christmas into the house.

JAKE MINTON and PHILLIP KLAPPERICH have a very smart book. It balances out grief with guffaws, and works on heartstring-tugging themes that anyone can relate to as they go through the holidays remembering lost loved ones. In addition, it is hilarious for adults, which can be a difficult accomplishment with shows targeted to children.

The majority of this comedy comes from a delightful band of toys. VINCENT KEMPSKI excels at physical comedy and sweetness as Fritz. WILL GARTSHORE leaps about as the saucy French Monkey, made of winter socks and spunk. EVAN CASEY toddles around as the neurotic robot HUGO, and steals a scene with a timid version of "Silent Night". ERIN WEAVER plays Phoebe, a brightly-colored pull string doll who can only say about seven or eight lines. Despite these limitations, her character is smart, emphatic, and also slightly psychotic, in a completely funny way.

The rest of the cast is equally delightful. SHERRI L. EDELEN balances a snarky British rat and the lost mother Martha very well. Both she and MITCHELL HEBERT, who also takes on multiple roles as the father David, a rat, and Teddy, make it look like they're having a lot of fun. LAWRENCE REDMOND makes Uncle Drosslemeier more human than his ballet counterpart. LAUREN WILLIAMS is sweet as Clara, whose unknowing sarcasm balances out the ridiculous stories and lines of her uncle.

While the book is smart and the comedy vibrant, the working of this tale into a musical has its faults. There are a number of songs, but none that you find yourself humming as you head home. The melodies aren't particularly memorable. In addition, the lyrics are so predictable that you cringe at certain lines. If they were more developed, this could be a much more solid component of the show. Right now, it's not one where you'd want a soundtrack.

You walk into Christmas as you enter this theatre. The stage is bright red, with a few trap doors and a giant Christmas tree. HELEN HUANG gives her characters amazingly detailed costumes, making sure to demonstrate emotions and themes through the changing colors. Huang has also designed puppets for the show, a teddy bear marionette and a giant rat that can best be described as Skrillex combined with the talking trees from Lord of the Rings. It's intimidating, but given the space and scale needed, it pretty much works.

This show is intended for children, and there were a number in the audience at opening night, from about age 5 and up. While it is up to every parent to decide whether or not this is good for their kids, a few warnings. The Rat King puppet is large, dark, and somewhat scary. A few kids had to look away. The other Rats run around in the dark with glowing red eyes. Anyone with children firmly attached to their teddy bears should be warned that one in this show comes to a rough ending. However, all the kids seemed to really love it. For more information, there is a "For Parents" show on Round House's production page.

This show, at its heart, is a very funny, timely story that can connect with all of its viewers. While there are parts that aren't as strong as others, I do recommend you check it out with your family, and enjoy the classic tale you remember with a show you won't forget anytime soon.

THE NUTCRACKER plays at Round House Theatre in Bethesda through December 28th. For more information, visit their production page.

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From This Author Heather Nadolny

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