BWW Review: THE NUTCRACKER Presented by Ballet West at Kennedy Center
NOTE: The casting mentioned here reflects the performance on December 5th, 2018.
There are certain theatrical presentations you can always depend on for sheer holiday joy at this time of year. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker is definitely high on that list. The music has spawned many different interpretations over the years, including Duke Ellington's version featuring a swinging saxophone section. The music is also used in many television commercials so even if you didn't know the music was from the classic ballet, chances are you at one point or another have been exposed to The Nutcracker.
Each year the Kennedy Center presents a different company's version of this holiday perennial favorite. This year's pick is Ballet West which is based out of Salt Lake City. There are many familiar elements in this production and plenty of history in the choreography. Choreographer Willam F. Christensen was the first American to stage a production of The Nutcracker for San Francisco Ballet. In 1963, he formed Ballet West, taking his famed staging with him. It has been performed by the company ever since making it the longest running staging in the country.
The familiar story begins at a Christmas party at the home of Clara (Makenzie Hymes) and her family. Among the guests is the doll maker Dr. Drosselmeyer (Beau Pearson) who - through a bit of his own magic - make his dolls come to life and dance. This includes a ballerina (Sayaka Ohtaki) and a bear (Vinicius Lima). He also has a special present for Clara, a nutcracker. This does not impress the macho Fritz (Corbin Holloway) as he only received a trumpet as a Christmas gift. He grabs the doll from Clara and breaks his head off (spoiled brat!).
After Clara goes to sleep, with a little help from Drosselmeyer, she dreams of a battle between her Nutcracker Prince (Alexander MacFarlen) and some mice. After she awakes, her doll becomes real and together they take off to a faraway land where Clara has something special waiting for her. Her Prince has put together a cornucopia of international talent from places like Russia, China, and beyond.
I have either worked on or watched a production of The Nutcracker for 35 years now and I was very happy that this production is set in the period that this it was intended for and follows the story as written. Some things don't need any "improvements." Some familiar elements you are sure to recognize include the battle scene between the mice and Nutcracker Prince and the large skirted Mother Buffoon (Beau Pearson) who is sometimes known as Mother Ginger.
This production also utilizes a 63 - yes folks 63 (Washington Ballet, are you reading this?) - piece orchestra under the direction of Jared Oaks. I realize many companies can't afford to go this route and opt for recorded music, but hearing it played live by some of the area's best musicians adds so much. I have to say though I did find some of the tempi by Maestro Oaks to have a little more of a lilt than the music requires. The battle scene in particular didn't have that audible urgency it usually does for me.
Ballet West features many local children including the young girl playing Clara. Makenzie Hymes has a cute as a button stage presence and her acting abilities read all the way to the back of Kennedy Center's Opera House. Other roles played by locals include Fritz, the children at the party, and Mother Buffoon's bumblebee buffoons.
There are many standout adult performances here, but perhaps the team of Beckanne Sisk and Chase O'Connell as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier respectively wins as the most memorable. Their "Grand Pas de Deux" is very fluid and the two dancers are always in perfect sync with one another. The leaps and grabs towards the end are pretty breathtaking to watch too.
As for Waltz of the Flowers it was interesting to see it performed with two Dew Drop leads as opposed to just a female soloist. In this case Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Ruud did the honors and executed Christensen's choreography with all the beauty needed.
Of the other variations that stuck out as favorites is the "Chinese," which features Tyler Gum as a warrior and backed by a sizable Chinese dragon. The "Trepak," representing Russia, features the athletic Christopher Sellers and his backup dancers. That piece is always an audience favorite and Sellers and company did not let us down.
The costumes designed by David Heuvel pop with plenty of bright colors throughout. The Flowers and Mirlitons costumes are two of my personal favorites.
Amidst all the good I also have to mention a few not so great things. There were a few missed fly cues at my performance, which left us waiting longer than needed for drops to go away. Keeping in mind that the company only had limited tech time at Kennedy Center, I'm sure these errors will be fixed by the time you get to see the show.
Projections are becoming more and more of a hindrance than enhancement when it comes to stage work nowadays. I feel that Mike Tutaj's projections, limited as they are, don't add anything to this show. Sometimes technology just isn't needed.
Despite these quibbles from this ornery reviewer, Ballet West's production of The Nutcracker is pure holiday joy for the whole family. The fact that this version carries historical significance makes the audience all the luckier.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
Ballet West's The Nutcracker runs through December 9, 2018 in the Opera House at Kennedy Center, located at 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.
For tickets, click here.