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BWW Review: THE NUTCRACKER at Kennedy Center Opera House


Miami City Ballet's production runs through November 28.

BWW Review: THE NUTCRACKER at Kennedy Center Opera House

What's that warm tropical breeze wafting through the corridors of the Kennedy Center this chilly late November? It's the Miami City Ballet's utterly charming Caribbean-infused production of The Nutcracker.

It is the first time that Washington audiences get to experience the refreshing 2017 reimagining of George Balanchine's classic, conceived by artistic director Lourdes Lopez with splendid costumes by the late fashion designer Isabel Toledo, who died from breast cancer in 2019, and set and properties designed by her husband Ruben Toledo. The company has dedicated this production to Isabel.

Sticking quite closely to E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the first act is carried on the traditional, chilly, gothic Nuremberg drafts through the big old house of Marie Stahlbaum, her bratty younger brother Fritz, and their family and friends at a Christmas party. It is with the second act's Land of the Sweets that the Toledos give themselves playful liberty to infuse costumes and set with a bright, island atmosphere.

Lighting designer James F. Ingalls casts Act I in cool, moody hues and Act II in the oranges and yellows of a warm Havana sun. The Winter Wonderland before intermission is gorgeous in an Old World classical way while the Land of the Sweets has the whimsical feel of being inside a cathedral-sized sky-lit pineapple. Wendall K. Harrington's inviting animated projections during the overture and the hallucinogenic prologue to the Mouse King battle adds to the evening's theatrical magic.

This sophisticated but never overbearing technical wizardry perfectly complements the more down-to-earth magic of children dancing together again after a year of cancelled productions and classes during the Covid lockdown. As line-dancing young folks at the Stahlbaums' party, mice, soldiers, angels, and so on, the developing dancers' clean phrasing, clarity of line, and attention to ensemble bode well for future corps and soloists. (And what's harder than stage-managing a production of The Nutcracker? Doing so with masking and other pandemic protocols. Kudos to the behind-the-scenes platoons of MCB staff, local ballet-school teachers, parents, and the children themselves for pulling it off.)

From Wednesday evening's cast, Audrey Portner as Marie (the character named Clara in many productions) and Madison Luna as the mysterious Herr Drosselmeier's nephew, the young man who has caught Marie's eye, interacted with great sensitivity to the dramatic moment. Also admirable was Luna's clearly pantomimed recounting of first-act events. Act I is largely about story exposition and the kids, but Ellen Grocki, Satoki Habuchi, and Shimon Ito as Columbine, Harlequin, and Soldier, amused with vivid animatronic eccentricity.

Act II's Land of the Sweets presented a cornucopia of superb solos, duets, and flowing, swirling Balanchinian patterns embodied in a generally light, graceful corps. Among highlights: Damian Zamorano's casually confident swashbuckling leaps in the Hot Chocolate brigade; Jordan-Elizabeth Long's sinuous Coffee solo (although she rushed it a bit); Ito's eye-popping Tea antics, and Alexander Peters's hopped-up hoola-hoop stunts among the Candy Canes.

But the greatest treats among the Sweets were Nathalia Arja's Dewdrop and Jennifer Lauren and Renan Cerdeiro as the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Arja's frame is slender but pure strength, her technique is dazzling, and her presence irresistibly warm -- she just looks glad to be there. Her turns have a finely tuned pace and precision, and her balance on pointe is a wonder -- she looks like she could hang out up there on her toe perch and sip a cappuccino.

Albertson and Loch partner elegantly, with seamless lifts, delicate rotations, and a wonderful sleight-of-hand moment when it seems he is pulling her, while she is on pointe, across a little stretch of ice. Their aerial work, fouettes, and turns a la seconde were also lovely.

Under the baton of MCB music director Gary Sheldon, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra's rendition of the Tchaikovsky classic score sounded grand, with a gorgeous extended violin solo by concertmaster Oleg Rylatko.

It's been more than a decade since MCB was at the Kennedy Center. I hope we won't have to wait as long to see this engaging company again. What a festive, uplifting start to the holidays!


Run time: two hours, including a 20-minute intermission. Tickets are available here.

Photo by Teresa Wood: Nathalia Arja as Dewdrop

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