BWW Reviews: THE NUTCRACKER Inspires Holiday Cheer in ARB Production
If you have a couple kids and live just about anywhere in New Jersey, chances are that you'll cross paths with the American Repertory Ballet this December. Since 1964, the ARB has staged a holiday season production of The Nutcracker. The current, 50th-anniversary performance will be making its way to Trenton and Manasquan in the weeks ahead, and will finish up in a full-orchestra rendition at the New Brunswick State Theatre. Or maybe you've already experienced this year's ARB festivities; after a brief stopover at the Union County Performing Arts Center, The Nutcracker settled into Princeton's McCarter Theatre for a weekend engagement.
I was lucky enough to catch a Friday matinee of the McCarter production-a production light on artistic liberties and overflowing with holiday cheer. In the hands of director and lead choreographer Douglas Martin, The Nutcracker became a buoyant spectacle, decked out in Candyland colors and danced with wind-up-doll flourishes. It must be the secret wish of every child on earth-and every parent, for that matter-to check into F.A.O. Schwartz and never check out. Martin's The Nutcracker gives children and parents the next best thing: two hours of good solid F.A.O. Schwartz-y fun, and life-sized to boot.
But what can an adult without children (yup, that's me) take away from The Nutcracker? Of course, there's the simple thrill of rediscovery. I'm pretty sure that I've had a few of the musical numbers wandering through my mind since I was four or five, and it's so refreshing to see them, at long last, emerge into the light. But there's also the thrill of realizing how accomplished all that music, and quite a bit of the ballet, genuinely is. The score of The Nutcracker was composed in 1891 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of the most loved and best known of a remarkable generation of Russian artists. No, I'm not saying that you can draw easy comparisons between The Nutcracker and Anna Karenina-yet I will maintain that Tchaikovsky's music has the versatility, the humor, and even the sadness of great art. For all its whimsy, the ARB's production never lets you lose sight of that kind of greatness.
The story itself may be supremely familiar. In the course of a lavish Christmastime gathering, a young girl named Clara receives a nutcracker doll from her beloved Uncle Drosselmeyer. Later that night, Clara is spirited into a dream world, where her nutcracker and his army of toy soldiers battle a squadron of rats, and emerge victorious with Clara's help. (Note: The dancers for each major role do change from performance to performance.) That's about it for Act I: simple story, but several shifts in mood and atmosphere. Martin and his scenic designers James Wolk, Carl Sprague, Ron Czyzewski tie everything together with a toyland aesthetic. Even those gigantic rats look more like bobble-head toys than actual rodents.