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CHICAGO | Take a classic holiday tale, turn it in a whole other direction, and you've got "A Nutcracker Christmas," a world premiere holiday musical performed by the Emerald City Theatre Company.

Whiting resident Dado couldn't be happier to be directing the show.

"Nutcracker Christmas is an original script. It's not the typical 'Nutcracker,' " she said. "You're not going to follow Clara in her world - she goes to the ballet - you follow Fritz - who stays home. He breaks the nutcracker."

The musical is written by G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert, a nationally known children's recording artist. It includes rocking new holiday songs such as "The Wind-Up Ballet," "Almost Christmas Morning" and "Let's Ruin Christmas."

Dado was intrigued by the show the moment she heard the first draft, although at first she wasn't sure who'd want to sing songs like "Let's Ruin Christmas." Enter her husband, Andrew Rothenberg, who plays the villain. Dado thought of him right away when she played the song.

Further making it a family effort, their 6-year-old daughter, Stella, auditioned and plays one of the sugarplum fairies. Two-year-old brother Booker isn't in the play "but loves watching the show."

The hour-long show fits right in with Emerald City's decade-long tradition of providing kid-friendly, entertaining works for the entire family. And it's been brought up-to-date: main character Fritz uses his skill with video games to help save the day.

In addition to quick pacing, Emerald City shows rely on audience participation. "So the kids are talking to the actors," Dado said. After weekend shows, children can hang around get actors' autographs on specially sized programs small enough for their hands.

"I'm really happy to work with Gary and Ralph. Ralph understands kids," she said. "I just saw a school performance, and the kids were jumping out of their seats. He's really a fun guy to work with and really creative."

Dado got her start in acting while at Clark High School in Hammond. She cites current English teacher (and former drama director) Steven Shepherd as her inspiration. "He's the reason I do what I do," she said. "He has wonderful knowledge and the ability to connect to students."

After graduating from Clark in 1985, she attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and trained at the Los Angeles Theater Academy in Hollywood. She acted for many years in Chicago theaters, and once she began having children she started directing plays to take advantage of the shorter time commitment. Luckily, she discovered that she was good at it and enjoyed it.

She's been working for Emerald City for several years and runs its education department. The company has education programs in the city and suburbs such as after-school drama clubs, residencies in schools and theater classes. (The winter session starts in January).

Although Dado mostly directs, she recently played a guard on Fox's "Prison Break." (Andrew can be seen as a prisoner in the psych ward on an upcoming show.)

"I would love to act more than I do now, but I would probably have to wait until my kids are a bit older," she said. "These kids grew up in the theater. Stella learned how to walk at the Steppenwolf."

She said because this show is new, one of the challenges is deciding which songs to keep and which have to go. "It's a huge artistic debate - which song tells the best story? Even though it's the most challenging, it's also the most exciting because you get to shape the play into your own."

Dado said it's also rewarding to see the show with the audience it's intended for because the kids are so entertained. "I don't think I'd be doing this if I didn't have kids," she said. "I think I'm known for directing darker, more adult theater. I lead kind of a double life in a way."

Future projects include directing "The Seahorse" at Red Orchid (a dark piece) and then another dark piece written by Susan Sontag. Dado's also received the Michael Maggio Directing Fellowship she'll be doing this year at The Goodman Theatre.

When she's not directing shows in Chicago, Dado's busy teaching the drama club at the Montessori school in Hammond, where Stella attends school. "It's really fun and rewarding, and I really enjoy it."

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