Review: Lookingglass Theatre Returns with The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a Weighty Holiday Fable Filled with Wonder

For all the theater I’ve attended in Chicago—since childhood, really—I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that this weekend marked my first visit to Michigan Avenue’s Lookingglass Theatre, the 35-year-old ensemble company that marks a lofty few accomplishments, including one Tony as Best Regional Theatre and others for its creative teams and productions. Like several other companies around town, Lookingglass has its own holiday tradition, a compact but robust 60-minute production of a Hans Christian Andersen story, The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Lookingglass has been performing this dialogue-free drama created by Mary Zimmerman since 2018 (streaming a version in 2020), and it’s no wonder this gem of a presentation is, as they correctly call it in their marketing materials, a “beloved Chicago holiday tradition.”

I’m already a big fan of the holidays, so it didn’t bother me to see this festive show so early in its run (catch it through January 8); the fact that the weather was biting cold downtown and the city lit our own huge tree in front of The Bean the same night certainly helped set the mood. And upon entering Lookingglass at its home inside the historic Water Tower Pumping Station, itself all dressed up for Christmas, one is immediately transported to a Victorian holidayscape, the stage displaying a charming, life-sized Advent calendar adorned by a vintage-looking proscenium and a small pit below the footlights for an orchestra of four (piano, cello, violin and flute). Arrive before showtime to see the wonder of the Advent calendar as intended.

Once the show begins, there’s not a moment you’ll want to look away, as a cast of just five talented actors retell the story of a one-legged (and therefore unwanted) Tin Soldier (Adeoye), the Ballerina (Kasey Foster) he befriends and those along his journey—a Nursemaid (Christopher Donahue), a Goblin (Anthony Irons) and a Rat (John Gregorio)—as he tumbles from one unexpected circumstance to another before this heavy but poignant fable is finished. If you’re not familiar with the story, suffice it to say that this is not your grandkids’ Disney-fied happily ever after, though it may just be one of the most moving holiday productions on stage in the city each year. Through a series of twists and turns outside of his control, our Tin Soldier finds himself in a number of sticky situations, from lost in a city street to drowning in a sewer to the inside of a fish’s belly and more, each of these vignettes stunningly brought to life through puppets and costumes that play with perspective and cleverly interpret the given situation.

Each of the actors is beautifully expressive as their silent roles require, eliciting laughs and gasps from the audience in equal measure, and the small orchestra down front gets in on the fun now and then, too. It’s an immersive experience all around, made all the more exceptional in Lookingglass’s intimate auditorium. By the time the Tin Soldier and his Ballerina friend reach the end of their story, it’s almost a wonder that only an hour has gone by, so rich has the time been. The most lovely moments of all are saved for the show’s final moments, and whether it’s your first time experiencing it (like me) or you’ve made it an annual tradition, it’s a moment that will surely take your breath away. Less well known than other holiday shows, perhaps, The Steadfast Tin Soldier is nevertheless just as moving and certainly as well-staged as its counterparts. For a brief but beautiful evening at the theater, Lookingglass has the perfect ticket.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is now on stage at Lookingglass Theatre (821 N. Michigan Ave.) through January 8. Several performances are planned for special needs, including audio descriptions and sensory-friendly versions. Learn more online.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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