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‘Steadfast Tin Soldier’ at Lookingglass is a charming, whimsical holiday treat

Alex Stein and Kasey Foster star in the Looingglass Theatre production of "The Steadfast Tin Solder." | Liz Lauren

Alex Stein and Kasey Foster star in the Looingglass Theatre production of "The Steadfast Tin Solder." | Liz Lauren

Hans Christian Andersen had a funny idea about what constituted a love story. Take, for example, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The story of a miscast one-legged tin soldier and the toy ballerina he loves legit gave me nightmares as a small child. Without indulging in spoilers, let’s just say there’s a gruesome romantic subplot in “The Towering Inferno” that could have been inspired by “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.”

Rest assured that Mary Zimmerman’s take on Andersen’s classic is not a disaster movie. Nowhere near. Foremost, it is completely suitable for children.

The production at Lookingglass Theatre is innovative and charming and funny and gloriously creative and terrifically engaging for its entirely too-brief, 60-minute run time. If the titular toy and his tiny dancer wind up in the ashcan rather than the cozy dollhouse in the nursery, well, trust that all is not lost to the fiery furnaces of time.

‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’
★★★1/2
When: Through Jan. 13
Where: Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Tickets: $45-$85
Info: lookingglasstheatre.org

There’s no dialogue in the spectacle conceived and directed by Zimmerman and featuring a five-person cast, an ingenious array of puppets and an exquisitely capable woodwinds/cello/violin/piano quartet. And no dialogue is needed. The ensemble creates an entire household of memorably bratty children, put-upon parents, idiosyncratic toys and subterranean creatures.

Zimmerman plays with perception throughout. When the Ballerina (Kasey Foster) pirouettes inside the dollhouse, the giant eyeball of a child fills an entire window. With the Tin Soldier (Alex Stein) helms a paper boat through the sewers, he is matched in size by a rat (John Gregorio) determined to sink the ship. When a baby plays beneath a Christmas tree, the presents are like squat buildings.

Zimmerman’s cast is without a chink in its armor. As the Soldier, Stein makes an impressively credible one-legged, no-jointed toy-in-love, delivering one of the most physically demanding roles since 2000, when Lawrence E. DiStasi played a giant cockroach in the Lookingglass adaptation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

As the Soldier’s Ballerina love, Foster is as wide-eyed as a porcelain doll and able to tell an entire love story with a few incredibly expressive twirls (dance choreographer Tracy Walsh’s emotive work is lovely).

Christopher Donahue’s Nursemaid comes delightfully close to stealing the show with his quavering feather-duster and suffer-no-fools demeanor. If Foster creates a love story with dainty ballet steps, Donahue does so with gimlet-eyed fish mongering.

Anthony Irons springs with jackal-like menace as the nursery’s malevolent jack-in-the-box goblin.

Irons and Gregorio also play several smaller roles — notably a duo of mischievous youth whose slo-mo fisticuffs is a comic highlight of the production.

John Gregorio (from let), Kasey Foster and Anthony Irons in a scene from "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" at Lookingglass Theatre. | Liz Lauren

John Gregorio (from let), Kasey Foster and Anthony Irons in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” at Lookingglass Theatre. | Liz Lauren

The puppets crafted by Chicago Puppet Studio are among the most expressive creatures on stage, no shade intended. There’s a baby whose personality is excruciatingly distinct. There is a fish — actually several fish — that gobble up some characters and get gobbled up by others. The sewer rat is lovable, even when drowned, bloated and belly-up.

The story hews closely to Andersen’s original. The toys come to life, with the Soldier and the Ballerina falling in love during an awkward yet sweetly elegant dance. They are separated by the whims of a naughty child who sends the Soldier on an epic adventure out the window, down to the gutters, into the belly of a great fish and finally onto the family dinner table.

There’s plenty of humor in Zimmerman’s telling: The Ballerina’s attempts to keep the Soldier from toppling over are as touching as they are amusing. The petals that rain down whenever anyone gets googly-eyed with love are giggle-worthy.

Todd Rosenthal’s colorful set evokes Renaissance-era opulence and the toy theaters that charmed children of the era. When the lights come up, they’re on a wall-sized Advent Calendar, filigreed doors for each day of December opening on an array of treats. Sliding panels transform the space into a child’s playroom, with lavishly painted backdrops illustrating underground sewers and city streets. Ana Kuzmanic’s elaborately detailed costumes are color-saturated and festooned with vivid details.

Even the orchestra is in period wigs and costumes.

T.J. Gerckens’ lighting design washes the stage in color, filling the nursery with warmth, the underground with cold blues, the final scenes with fiery reds.

The entire story is carried by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert’s whimsical, atmospheric score.

At 60 minutes (and a top ticket of $85), “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is not the least-expensive hour of family-friendly entertainment you’ll find this season. It could do with another 20 minutes or so. But that hour that it contains? It’s nearly perfect.

Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.