Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Flurry of Holiday Cheer

The wondrous production of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet runs live through December 27th

By: Dec. 12, 2022
Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Flurry of Holiday Cheer
Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Flurry of Holiday Cheer
The corps de ballet frolics in the snow in San Francisco Ballet's production of Nutcracker

Don't let anyone tell you it never snows in San Francisco. In fact, there's a veritable blizzard occurring twelve times a week right now onstage at the War Memorial Opera House. The final scene in Act I of San Francisco Ballet's wondrous production of Nutcracker opens in darkness before a tiny aperture of white light quickly expands to illuminate a stageful of dancers frolicking amid gently falling snow. By the time the curtain descends, the snow is coming down so hard that the dancers farthest upstage are reduced to shimmering mirages. It is a feat of stage wizardry that is sure to melt the hearts of even the most Scroogelike among us.

SFB's current version of Nutcracker was choreographed by its recently-retired Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson in 2004 as a love letter to his adopted hometown. Tomasson resets the action to San Francisco at the time of the 1915 World's Fair, thereby adding an extra layer of nostalgia to this enduring classic. The story still follows the general contours of the original - young Clara receives a magical nutcracker from her mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer on Christmas Eve which eventually leads her to a dreamland of enchantments.

The big family party scene in Act I takes place in a stately Victorian home that conjures a post-earthquake San Francisco that was finally coming into its own as a city and center of culture. The sets and costumes by Tony winners Michael Yeargan and Martin Pakledinaz, respectively, create stage pictures of majesty and whimsy that call on our collective longing for a time that maybe never really existed. And of course, there is always that incomparable Tchaikovsky score tossing off another intoxicating new melody every few minutes or so, played by the SFB orchestra with passion and precision under conductor Martin West's sensitive direction.

Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Flurry of Holiday Cheer
The title character battles the King of Mice in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker

The opening night cast delivered a performance that was beautifully danced and acted top to bottom, with extra doses of detail and pizzazz that have sometimes gone missing in recent years. In the Act I party scene, I was particularly enchanted by Katita Waldo's warmth and spontaneity as Clara's mother, and Maggie Weirich and Isabella Devivo's starch and vivacity as the Housekeeper and Maid. These are not large or flashy roles, and yet the dancers invested them with so much character and craft that my eye was drawn to them whenever they were onstage. Likewise, the lighter-than-air Lonnie Weeks also made an uncommonly nuanced Dancing Doll.

After Drosselmeyer (an enigmatic Tiit Helimets) shrinks Clara (a winsome Neve Chang) and himself to the size of the nutcracker's doll world and a madcap battle with the King of Mice ensues, Clara's nutcracker takes human form as a dashing prince, and this is when the evening really takes flight. Joseph Walsh as the Prince lights up the stage with his chivalrous charm and boyish demeanor. Clara immediately feels safe and secure in his presence, and it's easy to see why. The Prince then leads Clara to a winter wonderland where we meet the Queen and King of Snow. Yuan Yuan Tan made a perfect Queen, with her intrinsic ethereality and plush softness. Henry Sidford as the King of Snow matched her beautifully and provided gallant support. When the curtain came down on Act I, you could hear the audience release an involuntary, collective sigh of wonder.

Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Flurry of Holiday Cheer
Nikisha Fogo (R) as the Sugarplum Fairy leaps through "The Waltz of the Flowers" in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker

Act II takes us to the garden of the Crystal Place where the Sugar Plum Fairy serves as hostess for a festival of dancing in honor of Clara and the Prince. Mingxuan Wang and Thamires Chuvas stood out in the Spanish variation, dancing with crispness and verve. WanTing Zhao brought a captivating enigmatic quality to the Arabian number, ably abetted by the equally beguiling Steven Morse and Alexander Reneff-Olson. The lightning-fast Russian trio - always guaranteed to bring down the house no matter how well it's performed - was perhaps the best I've ever seen. Lucas Erni was the spectacular whirling dervish at its center, pulling off a smashing set of mid-air splits, perfectly timed to the music, that simply had to be seen to be believed, and his cohorts Joshua Jack Price and Jacob Seltzer matched his exuberant artistry, framing him perfectly.

The iconic "Waltz of the Flowers" was led by a ravishing Nikisha Fogo as the Sugarplum Fairy. Although Fogo has been with the company for two years now, this is the first time I've seen her dance, and I was mightily impressed. She possesses a natural warmth and seemingly effortless command that is exactly what the role calls for. Her sustained balances gave her an authority that was nicely complemented by her lovely line and unfussy technique. I am already looking forward to seeing what roles Fogo will dance during SFB's upcoming 2023 repertory season.

Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Flurry of Holiday Cheer
Joseph Walsh and Misa Kuranaga in the Grand Pas de Deux of San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker

The Grand Pas de Deux was beautifully danced by Misa Kuranaga and Joseph Walsh. The adagio was light and crisp, with Kuranaga rushing at Walsh to alight on his shoulder with a swoony romanticism. Kuranaga took her solo variation at possibly the slowest tempo I've ever seen, thereby greatly increasing the degree of difficulty and allowing her to play with the musicality of the sequence in a delightful back-and-forth with conductor West and the orchestra. Walsh impressed with his space-devouring leaps and impossibly soft landings, and proved to be a secure partner in the famous fish dives.

All in all, it was a glorious performance, and you could feel the audience brimming with holiday cheer as they exited the opera house. These days when there is so much to fret over, it is such a pleasure to find that the holiday classics can still be counted on to lift our spirits.

(All photos by Quinn Wharton)

Live performances of San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker continue through Tuesday, December 27th at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA. Running time is approximately two hours, including one intermission. For tickets and additional information, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415) 865-2000, M-F 10am-4pm.




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