Check your preconceived visions of what sugar plum fairies are all about at this theater's door. "A Nutcracker Christmas," a production by the Emerald City Theatre Company, isn't at all like the ballet you expect to see this time of year. This modern musical provides welcome twists on the usual themes, keeping both kids and parents amused. This is a fun, family-friendly outing, produced by a caring and talented cast.
The (sensible) one-hour musical opens with a daffy Clara preparing to dance in her first ballet, while her brother Fritz groans about going. He wants to continue playing his beloved "Mouse Hunter 5000" video game and slay more mice. The neighbor, Mr. D, brings gifts including a nutcracker for Clara. A sibling scuffle ensues, and the nutcracker breaks. As punishment, Fritz is left behind with Mr. D. while the family attends Clara's performance-and his dad locks his video game away in the closet.
"I know where the key is," Fritz taunts the audience. "Should I unlock the closet and play my game?" Audience participation is part of the show's charm, and the intimate theater inspires interaction. Fritz was both warned and egged on by the kids.
"His mama told him not to play his video game," a 4-year-old girl said, wagging her finger.
My husband and I cringed as we watched our three 6-year-olds listen intently to Fritz's messages in his solo, "I'm Good at Being Bad." No worries, though. Fritz ends up on the hip fairy's PDA on the "bad kid" list, so there were consequences to his bad behavior.
Here's the plot: Fritz falls asleep and dreams that the villain, The Mouse King, is out to ruin Christmas. Fritz teams with The Nut Cracker and the two embark to Christmas Wood to save Christmas from The Mouse King and his comical sidekick, a Frenchman (The Mouse King laments he ordered a henchman), Francois. While at Christmas Wood, the Major of Christmas Wood leads the toys, ballerinas and fairies in some lively numbers-impressively capturing the rapt attention of a mob of 9-month-olds.
The small cast was musically capable as well as theatrically versatile; the kids had fun guessing who was playing whom, since they doubled up on parts (for example, Mr. D. was also The Mouse King and the father was also Major). The cast also seemed to genuinely like kids, which any parent appreciates. The actors thoughtfully bantered with kids of all ages during the performance-and even stayed after the show to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
Kids 10 and under are probably the best age for this show, but the often adult (and always appropriate) humor made this an enjoyable outing for everyone in our family. Jill S. Browning
"A Nutcracker Christmas" runs through Dec. 31. $13, $10 kids ages 11 and under. The Apollo Theater. 2540 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. (773) 935-6100. Check www.emeraldcitytheatre.com for show times and to reserve tickets. Parking is $6 and can be found on the north side of the theater.
Holiday lights at Brookfield Zoo
I went to see the lights at the Brookfield Zoo last weekend and I had a lot of fun. My family tries to go every year, but this year was by far the biggest and best yet. The first time I remember going, there were about 50 trees with lights; now there are too many trees covered in lights to count. The new laser show was like a big screen with animation, only better-it was bigger and cooler because of all the lights. It really brought out the Christmas spirit. Some of the lights went through the screen and went on and on through the sky. I wondered what it looked like from the street outside the zoo or from an airplane. The only downside to going to the zoo in December at night is the cold. Make sure you layer up and wear thick socks. If you get way too cold, there are plenty of places where you can go in to get warm. The animal houses are all open, so you could actually see an animal or two besides just lights. We watched the dolphins for awhile at the beginning of our evening and towards the end we spent some time in the elephant house. There is an entertainment tent set up near Roosevelt Fountain. The night we were there, we heard a choir singing Christmas carols and we got some hot chocolate. While you're there you may want to stop and see Santa and Mrs. Claus. You can get a good family Christmas card out of going to the zoo. Mr. and Mrs. Claus are in the old reptile house. While you wait in line you can check out the village set up in one of the exhibit windows. We looked at the village behind the glass and thought about how cool it would be if we saw a snake winding its way through the streets of the small town. My mom bought a couple of animal ornaments for our Christmas tree. I got a cool hat from the dolphin store. If you're a parent, you could sneak off by yourself and do a little Christmas shopping for your kids. They have lots of cool toys for the holidays. If you need something fun to do before Christmas, go to the zoo. It's all good family fun. Alek Pedersen, 12, Oak Park
Brookfield Zoo. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $10, $6 kids 3-11 and seniors, free kids 2 and under and members. Free admission Tuesday and Thursday during December. 1st Avenue between Ogden Avenue and 31st Street, Brookfield.
Chicago Botanic Garden - "Wonderland Express"
Train lovers will not want to miss the Chicago Botanic Garden's "Wonderland Express." Set among a beautiful display of greenery, pine trees, and white poinsettias, six garden-scale trains travel over bridges and wind past a large variety of Chicago landmarks.
In the gallery, where the trains traverse their tracks, a light snow gently fell from the overhead snowmaking machine and all thoughts of the outside disappeared as we got caught up in spotting Chicago's famous buildings and the precious details of each scene.
Each of the more than 60 landmarks is made from all natural materials, such as acorns, bark, twigs, leaves, cinnamons sticks and pebbles. Marina Towers gains its unique shape thanks to some mushrooms. The Millennium Park landmark features a miniature Pritzker Pavilion, complete with skaters enjoying the ice arena and the famous "Cloud Gate" sculpture nearby. This time, however, the sculpture is made of a gourd. It is as much fun to watch the trains and identify the landmarks as it is to figure out how they are made. Of course, the Sears Tower and Hancock Building are prominent but you can also view the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Art Institute, complete with the building's tell-tale lions sporting wreaths around their necks. It is the perfect place to play a game of "I Spy" as you search out Mrs. O'Leary's cow, a statue of Michael Jordan (with his head made out of an acorn), the Picasso sculpture, Buckingham Fountain, the American Girl store and so many more. Just remind the kids not to touch. The exhibit was designed by Paul Busse of Applied Imagination who was responsible for designing the Botanic Garden's outdoor train garden. There is even a miniature version of the Botanic Garden itself with a trolley running through it.
In addition to the train exhibit, there are 14 themed Christmas trees, exquisitely decorated by designers and retailers. Favorite trees included the pet-themed tree, featuring dogs and cats; the Circus Tree showcasing animals; and the American Girl tree, complete with many tiny American Girl dolls. But by far the most popular was the Thomas Tree. Before leaving you can see one last train at the English country train platform and view the colorful, lighted spheres outside and sparkling white lights in the trees of this winter wonderland. Lisa Stiegman
"Wonderland Express" runs 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Sunday Dec. 2-20. From Dec. 21-Jan. 7, the exhibit is open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (It will be closed at 3 p.m. Dec. 24 and all day Dec. 25.) $10, $8 for kids ages 2-12. Parking is $12. For information, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/wonderland or call (847) 835-5440.
"High School Musical Remix Edition" DVD
I love the movie "High School Musical." It is a movie on the Disney Channel and is a very big hit with kids all ages. My mom even has fun watching and she's picky with some movies and shows. They even won an award at the Kids' Choice Awards.
They made a remix with behind the scenes extras and all sorts of other things. I watched it all night and it is awesome! They have two discs. One is the movie with the actors talking about their life before the movie and more. The second disc is the bonus disc with a Dance Along, which includes remixed versions of "Get'cha Head in the Game" and "We're all in this Together" and a Spanish version of "Breaking Free," a behind the scenes section and the regular songs. You can have the words of the songs to sing along.
When I sing along I don't even need the words at the bottom because I memorized the words. The first time I watched it I already could sing along with them. The songs are easy and fun. I love to follow along with the dances. The dances are fun to learn because they are tough to follow. But that's a good thing because you're kind of doing your own thing and that's fun. I even make up my own dances, especially for the song "Breaking Free." Sofie Pedersen, 9, Oak Park
"High School Musical: Remix Edition" is rated PG and is available for $29.99.
Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theatre
"A Christmas Carol" is a timeless classic and a terrific family story. Every holiday season you can find it at many local theaters. Last night, my little sister, a couple of friends of mine and I went to see "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theatre. The Goodman has been doing this show every year since 1978.
The Goodman makes Scrooge's journey through Christmas past, present and future very exciting. At times the characters appear out of nowhere, but if you're a spirit, I guess anything is possible. The music gets shockingly loud at some parts, and of course the show is about ghosts, so you may want to be careful about taking younger kids. My 9-year-old sister completely enjoyed the show, but being the youngest of four siblings, she is pretty tough.
I enjoyed the set of the play. It was very creative and like nothing I've seen before. All the major scenes rolled around the stage on a track. The actors all seemed to be a good fit with their characters. My favorite character was Ebenezer Scrooge. He was stingy and angry and mean and unrelenting about his negative feelings towards Christmas, yet the funny parts made me feel for him and want him to change his evil ways. I just knew his bark was worse than his bite and I anxiously waited for him to get into the holiday spirit and be happy. Kati Pedersen, 16, Oak Park
"A Christmas Carol," adapted by Tom Creamer and directed by William Brown. Runs through Dec. 30. The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Check online at www.goodmantheatre.org for dates and times or call the box office at (312) 443-3800.