A Black actor in a toy soldier's costume stands center. Two people holding a long piece of rippling blue fabric stand in front of him. The orchestra is in the foreground. The scene is washed with green and blue lighting effects, as if they are underwater.
Adeoye (center) in the title role of Lookingglass Theatre's The Steadfast Tin Soldier Credit: Liz Lauren

It begins festively enough with a giant advent calendar revealing hints of the story to come. Some symbols are cheering, like wreaths and a violin. But others are mysterious—why a giant fish and a wheelbarrow? 

In The Steadfast Tin Soldier, created and directed by Mary Zimmerman (from the story by Hans Christian Andersen), we soon see all of these symbols appear in the plot through the ancient art form of pantomime. The immensely entertaining cast of five players and four very interactive musicians tells a big story (with the help of some astounding puppets from the Chicago Puppet Studio). The tale is fraught with devilish clowns, stern adults, and naughty bullies who try to thwart the imagination of one toddler (played by a giant puppet) during his playtime. More importantly, the action follows his favorite tin soldier, who is earnest, brave, and disabled. The soldier wishes only to be with his true love, a paper ballerina in the nearby dollhouse. 

The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Through 1/8: Tue 1:30 and 7 PM, Wed 7 PM, Thu 1:30 and 7 PM, Fri 7 PM, Sat 1:30 and 7 PM, Sun 1 and 6 PM; Fri 11/25 1:30 and 7 PM, Wed 11/30 6:30 PM only, Tue 12/13 7 PM only, Sat 1/7 2 and 7 PM, no performances Thu 11/24, Tue 11/29, 12/6, and 1/3, and Sun 12/25; audio description and touch tour Sun 12/11 1 PM and Fri Jan 6 7 PM, sensory friendly performance Thu Jan 5 1:30 PM; Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, lookingglasstheatre.org, $65-$75

Like any great adventure/romance, the obstacles are many, and highly improbable, making space for hilarity. The cast is seasoned to perfection (standout performance by Adeoye playing the Tin Soldier), and the orchestra adds such a festive mood to the show that you might want to bring along multiple generations to wonder at this charming holiday-inspired gem.

As in most Andersen fairy tales, there is a glum little sliver of realism peeking through the magic, perhaps to prepare children for some of life’s crueler plot twists. This production did not shy away from that, but serves it up on such a pretty platter, going so far as to add a particularly moving musical number at the end, that the audience can find the courage to leave the warm world of candlelight, fairy tales, and orchestra pit for the bluster and freeze of winter, feeling all the stronger for it.