Credit: Michael Brosilow

Grief is a shadowy guest at many holiday tables. The House Theatre of Chicago’s nonballet version of The Nutcracker transforms E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” into a moving imaginative story of loss and rebirth. Created by Phillip Klapperich, Jake Minton, Kevin O’Donnell, and director-choreographer Tommy Rapley, the show moves from high-spirited holiday hijinks to deep sadness, as a family finds out at a Christmas Eve party that their son and brother has died in combat.

How do you keep going when the worst thing imaginable has happened? What holiday traditions can possibly provide a balm for broken hearts? Those questions haunt the heart of this piece. But fear not: it’s also goofy, kinetic, tuneful (thanks to O’Donnell’s score and a tight five-piece band), and sweet.

There’s a fair degree of the “mythic journey nonsense” (as Amanda de la Guardia’s grieving mother Martha describes it) that has always been the House’s dramaturgical spine. But that journey (inspired by Rom Barkhordar’s Uncle Drosselmeyer) proves exhilarating, as Clara (Haley Bolithon) and her toy friends—Rachel Shapiro’s talking doll Phoebe, Johnny Arena’s Gallic Monkey, and Ben Hertel’s robot Hugo—join with Fritz (Desmond Gray), the reincarnation-in-nutcracker-form of Clara’s dead brother, to battle rats and restore some semblance of Christmas cheer.

Squint and you’ll see hints of the Toy Story franchise, as well as A Christmas Carol. But mostly what you’ll find is a soul-stirring affirmation of the need to move toward the light in darkest times.   v