A Family-Friendly "Nutcracker"
by Lisa Traiger
How hard it is to say 'no' to the temptations of sweets, especially as the holiday season—with its parties, receptions and food-centered family gatherings—revs into full gear. "The Nutcracker," that ever-popular caloric temptation, is back once again. With its gingerbread and chocolate, marzipan and sugarplums, it is as enticing as ever. Who can resist its sugar-spun high—dancing to Tchaikovsky's score rich with dollops of familiarity? And that story of family-centered values and sweet dreams come true, it seems just right as the new world order, where right and might have usurped giving and grace, settles in for another four years. So "Nutcracker" it is once again. And though it's hard for stalwarts to remember, "The Nutcracker" always new for someone. That's why it feels nearly Scroogelike not to love the warmth and treacle that this ballet puts forth year after year.
The Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker," which stopped in at the Kennedy Center for a five-day jaunt, is Opera House-worthy, striking many right notes: a richly detailed Victorian parlor and costumes; charming non-battery-powered toys like dolls, horns and kites for the well-rehearsed gaggle of Act I party children, and a toasty warm family-centered celebration with aunts, uncles and boisterous cousins filling the stage with a lovely turn of social dancing.
But "The Nutcracker" centers on Clara and her journey, spurred on by her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer's unusual gift: that stolid wooden nutcracker. Jennifer Goodman's Clara was compact and winsome in Act I. Clearly the most mature of the party-scene children (Clara and Fritz are the only children played by dancers in this production), she struck a few off-putting notes as she primped or pouted when things didn't go her way. Later, in Act II, she mugged and chattered with the ever-more overbearing godfather Drosselmeyer (more on him later). Rambunctious brother Fritz, Calvin Kitten, relished his ability to lead a gang of boy-cousins in a teasing fest. The Stahlbaum parents, Valerie Robin and Samuel Pergande, were decidedly non-Victorian, warm and loving, not overbearing nor given to more than mild scolding for childish affronts. In Joffrey's version, which premiered in 1987 and has been making annual rounds since, they become the Snow Queen and King. He, frosty, she, undeniably icy, even beneath an overabundance of fog, which hardly cleared by the end of their pas de deux.
"Nutcracker" magic would not happen without Dr. Drosselmeyer. Adam Sklute, slightly lascivious in his whirling black cape and silk top hat, played him as a showman magician, enchanting the children with parlor tricks —appearing silk scarves and life-like mechanical dolls, a sprinkle of magic dust and a bounty of gifts. But this Drosselmeyer never leaves. As the clock strikes midnight and the Stahlbaum household retires, of course he remains behind, to set the magic in motion. The growing Christmas tree glows and sparkles, the battle of mice with their foreboding shiny tin helmets and toy rifles and a calvary of foot soldiers battle under his watchful eye until in a pyrotechnic burst the heroic Nutcracker Prince, Willy Shives, comes to the rescue.
But as Act II resumes, this Nutcracker doesn't explore Clara's imaginative journey. Instead, godfather is back, still sprinkling magic dust and directing all those delicious divertissements. Clara is left to sit back and watch, gasping at Drosselmeyer's ability to conjure up sweet dreams for her. With black-clad Drosselmeyer ever present and active throughout the second act, the story is stolen from Clara, her imagination denuded. It's not her dream anymore, but Drosselmeyer's magical enticement. And that has creepily suggestive ramifications: Clara, a young girl on the cusp of maturity, charmed, wooed even, by her unattached godfather. And Adam Sklute most unfortunately revels in this admixture of magician and overly attentive suitor in the second act. He sits with Clara on the throne as they watch the sweet dream variations unwrap. His arm casually, insinuatingly, slung over her chair, he's the over-attentive boyfriend. When they whisper conspiratorially during and between divertissements the whole magical fabric comes unfurled.
The Joffrey's Kingdom of the Sweets, ruled by Maia Wilkins's Sugar Plum Fairy, is a gorgeous confection. Wilkins, with her Nutcracker Prince Wally Shives, was coolly Victorian, distant in her welcome, and dark-haired Mr. Shives faded against Ms. Wilkins's regal demeanor. Valerie Robin's Spanish Chocolate was tepid, while Emily Patterson and Peter Kozak intertwine in snake-like arabesques as Coffee from Arabia. Deanne Brown and Calvin Kitten replicated unfortunate bobble heads in the sprightly Tea divertissement. The Marzipan Shepherdesses attempt a spun sugar quality while the Russian Nougats relished the bold, boisterous elevations and rode the bombastic music. A 15-foot Mother Ginger, designed by puppeteer Kermit Love, revealed a baking tin full of bounding, playful harlequins, all local ballet students.
The swirling bouquet of Victorian flowers in the ever-popular Waltz of the Flowers sometimes verged on wilting. As the finale approaches, Drosselmeyer, still hovers, now annoyingly so. The sled or carriage meant to return Clara back to reality is, in the Joffrey version, a hot air balloon, a new-fangled invention of the Victorian era. As her newfound friends gather, the scene plays out like the farewell from "The Wizard of Oz." "There's no place like home," comes immediately to mind.
The Joffrey's "Nutcracker" remains a crowd-pleaser, especially when up against other recent Kennedy Center "Nutcrackers;" the Kirov's grotesquery and ABT's ill-thought one come to mind. The Joffrey's, with its opulent Victorian setting, its pitfalls notwithstanding, is wonderful, even if just for the number of local children it includes in real dance roles, not just smile-and-curtsey party parts. And, just as Dorothy squeezes her eyes shut and whispers "There's no place like home," the call of winter inevitably whispers, "There's no ballet like 'Nutcracker.'" No matter creepy godfather's, less than stellar dancing, there's surely something for nearly everyone to warm to on chilly evenings once the days shorten.
Photo on home page: The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s Valerie Robin and Sam Franke in The Nutcracker, by Herbert Migdoll
2, No. 45