BWW Review: THE NUTCRACKER at Houston Ballet
The Nutcracker is beloved for many reasons; the endless eye candy, the dynamic score, and the marriage of artistry and excellence. The element of tradition keeps us coming back for more. We yearn to feel connection, and to remember what it's like to wonder about magical things. Houston Ballet's multi-faceted Nutcracker is a delicious carnival of mystery and joy. Creative director Stanton Welch has built a production that serves the audience and leaves us completely fulfilled. Nothing sends you back to your childhood more quickly, with all things seemingly possible and your imagination offering an endless sweet escape.
Clara's Christmas Eve is full of family and fun, with the usual little dramas that trail every high-pitched holiday. When Clara's brother, Fritz (played by Hayden Stark) gets a little too rambunctious and breaks her nutcracker doll, we all remember those moments of childhood when a broken toy seemed like the end of the world. What grabs our hearts is the magic that ensues; the toy may have been broken, but it is the catalyst for adventure and renewal. Everything about these scenes - the festive party in a beautiful home, the children romping around the living room (with a floppy, happy dog, no less), and the merrily foreboding sense of the mystery to come - makes you happy to be alive. Clara is played winningly by Melody Mennite, whose childlike charms make it easy to believe she's a young girl wrapped up in the excitement of the holiday.
Dr. Stahlbaum, played by an enigmatic Christopher Coomer, ushers in the magic, bringing toys to dazzling life. It is a bright and festive part of the production, and I heard many children reacting to the magic with hushed awe (I confess I may have been one of them.) The Nutcracker is not without comedy, and Houston Ballet boasts dancers who can act and handle humor with panache. King Rat (Hayden Stark playing a second role) is very funny, swinging his rat tail like a player in a funky pool hall.
The winter sequence is almost holy it is so stunning. When the Snow Queen makes her entrance with her entourage I found myself thinking, "Why, oh, why can't life always be this beautiful?" I was near teary-eyed. Jessica Collado is commanding and regal as a snow queen should be. (Every girl and woman will yearn to try on her icicle crown. I know I did.) The set and snowy majesty pull you in so deeply that you fantasize about living somewhere that has a real winter. There is a special treat in this section of the show; a women's choir sings with the score as the flurries dance in their gossamer glory. The singers add an angelic and organic aspect to the scene. They sounded gorgeous, and I overheard another patron praising the live vocals. Oftentimes a ballet company will use a recorded track for this singing. Not Houston Ballet; they go a step further for their audiences.
The second act ushers in the international portion of the ballet. Highlights from this segment include Christopher Gray defying gravity as a Russian dancer, and Yuriko Kajiya and Christopher Coomer dancing in the beguiling and hypnotizing Arabian portion. Karina Gonzalez is a revelation as the Sugarplum Fairy, her poise on stellar overdrive as she dances with perfect control and expertness. Her prince (Connor Walsh) is a worthy partner; he is dashing and meets the requirements of the choreography with athleticism and grace. Melody Mennite's grown-up Clara is simply beautiful as she dances her solo in the Waltz of Flowers. This segment of the production is dazzling, with lush costuming and romantic lighting and sets. The dancers seem to relish the warm and blushing springtime.
The unseen stars of the show are costumers Laura Lynch and Tom Goodchild. The costumes virtually sing in every scene, from the Victorian gowns, to the shepherdess's confection, the multitude of animal costumes, and of course, the Snow Queen's court. The beauty and excellence of the costumes can only be seen to be fully appreciated,
In the end, Clara always has to awaken from the dream. And so do we. As the curtain came down and the lights came up I felt rejuvenated, and excited for the holidays. The Nutcracker makes you believe in good things to come. Get your tickets now - you're in for a treat!
Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker runs November 29 - December 29.
For tickets: https://www.houstonballet.org/
Photo credit: Amitava Sarkar