The Nutcracker
Snowflakes: ABT in Alexei Ratmansky's “The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

A New Nutcracker

American Ballet Theatre's “The Nutcracker” by Alexei Ratmansky

Performance
American Ballet Theatre: “The Nutcracker” by Alexei Ratmansky
Place
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, December 10-20, 2015
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

It’s no secret that “The Nutcracker,” a children’s book written by E.T.A. Hoffman and originally choreographed in 1892 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to the glorious music of Tchaikovsky, has been a cash cow for ballet troupes worldwide—at least since George Balanchine created his beloved version in 1954 for New York City Ballet, with other major (and minor) companies following suit.

But to charge $240 for an orchestra seat at SCFTA to see Alexei Ratmansky’s 2010 production of the iconic holiday work is something akin, well, to toe shoe robbery.

Seriously, sticker shock was only one of the problems at the West Coast premiere of the opus that will settle in permanently for an annual 10-day run, vacating its New York home at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Not that Ratmansky, ABT’s artist in residence since 2009, is a stranger here, with his NoDoz-needed “Sleeping Beauty” having had its world premiere at the Center in March, and his frothy “Cinderella” (2002), finding both her prince and sparkly footwear two months ago at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

So what went wrong with this two-act classic about a boisterous family Christmas celebration and young Clara’s subsequent kaleidoscopic reverie that this reviewer attended on December 13? Let us count the ways, beginning with the tilted house featured on the front drop (set and costume design by Richard Hudson, Tony Award-winner for “The Lion King”).

More apt for “The Wizard of Oz,” this is the home of the nineteenth century Stahlbaum family (a perfunctory Thomas Forster and April Giangeruso doing parental honors). When this curtain rose, revealing a Downton Abbey-like kitchen, the scene, replete with hanging copper pots and dripping in metaphorical money, was actually more cool than kitsch, holding promise of what was to come.

Indeed, synchronized dancing maids (Courtlyn Hanson and Jamie Kopit) and a floppy toque-sporting cook (Gabe Stone Shayer) bustled about with demonic glee, an errant mouse (George Buford), wreaking a bit of havoc before the party scene unfolded in the Stahlbaum parlor.

There, some 50 children (most coming from ABT’s recently-opened William J. Gillespie School at the Center), continuously smiled and jumped about, not always in unison, to the composer’s earworm-famous score, with David LaMarche ably conducting a basically in-tune Pacific Symphony. It’s not that the child leads—ABT imports—overacted, but they did occasionally grate: Clara (Claudia Schuman, miming to the max), her bratty, albeit ebullient brother Fritz (Justin Souriau-Levine), a Nutcracker Boy (Seth Koffler, occasionally looking lost) and the aforementioned mouse, ran riot through the scene, with a sailor-suited Fritz reminiscent of a young tar from Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.”

It was Ratmansky’s doppelgangering of the adult couple by Clara and Nutcracker Boy, including a grande pas de deux (or should it be quatre?), that proved unique, although not always working, with the adults even superseding the Sugar Plum Fairy-Cavalier roles. This double-dancing proved distracting and with the young ones, eerily alarming (the pre-pubescent sexuality, more on Clara’s part than on Nutcracker Boy’s, did not make for wide-eyed wonderment), as their relationship was the story’s focal point.

The enigmatic Drosselmeyer (Roman Zhurbin), wielded a long magical cape, which, alas, was, nearly the only magic to be found in this production, save for the stellar leads—James Whiteside’s Prince and Gillian Murphy’s grown-up Clara, aka, the Princess—Murphy’s tragic fall near the end of her performance notwithstanding.

And poor Drosselmeyer! Even he wasn’t able to make the limp, unimpressive Christmas tree grow more than a foot or two. Nor did he have the power to make the seminal clock, which initially read 11:30, to strike the bewitching hour of midnight: Bafflingly, the timepiece was stubbornly stuck on 11:45.

Dross did, however, let loose his gifts, among them Columbine and Harlequin (Cassandra Trenary and Arron Scott), who were requisitely dollish, before the battle of the mice and toy soldiers ensued, including a too-quiet cannon boom, with the fractious sides looking sloppy and insufficiently warrior-esque. Clara, inexplicably watching from a humongous chair, smacked of Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann as if fused with Alice in the latter’s hallucinatory Wonderland.

The wonder in this production assuredly lacking, there was at least some admirable dancing, with Ratmansky certainly giving his cast much to do: His signature style—both formal and informal—busy, intricate, patterned and bold, accented with lovely, gesturing arms, was on full view—when not obscured by unnecessary folderol.

The Snow Scene, another non-miracle, featured plenty of the white stuff, but with an odd backdrop of Japanese, neo-bamboo trees. Dross also brought a rinky-dink sleigh to rescue Clara and her Princelet from this faux blizzard, pushing the pair to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Would that it were so! With a scrim that resembled jail bars, Alexandra Basmagy an overweight, stooped-shoulder SPF, comforted Clara, Act II began with a crowd rivaling a Tokyo subway station: Here were Spaniards, Chinese, Russians, the Nutcracker’s sisters, flowers and four pollinating bees (yes, bees, seen to better advantage on classic Saturday Night Live episodes, with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the buzzing insects).

And let’s not forget Arabians—plural. Yes, on this evening, the Mouse King (Patrick Ogle), did double duty as Arabian, with a harem of four slinkers tending to his every whim. Wearing a skullcap, the shirtless Ogle could have been a young Bruce Willis, the dance’s inherent misogyny alleviated by one ballerina giving him an emphatic kick with her pointe shoe.

Sarah Lane and Jeffrey Cirio did their high-flying best as Chinese, with the Russians (Alexei Agoudine, Joo Won Ahn and Duncan Lyle), displaying none of the bravado—barrel turns and Hopak-style moves—normally seen in this tableau.

Mother Ginger (Sean Stewart), made for a feisty lookalike drag legend, Charles Busch, but the vignette proved anti-climactic, with the kiddies seen not coming out from under his/her skirt, but entering it. Where is Caitlin Jenner when you need her?

Still, kudos to the brave, Flowers, 16 corps members vying for attention amid those swarming, tuxedo-garbed bees, only to get tossed around towards the end of the famous waltz, narrowly avoiding collisions.

Murphy and Whiteside’s grand pas soared with fancy lifts, fish dives, pirouettes and balancing. But during Murphy’s first variation, she fell while landing a leap, momentarily stunning the audience, yet gamely getting up and finishing her solo. Murphy, 36, who had replaced Veronika Part on opening night and the evening before this performance, is not the “machine” she’d been dubbed. Mercifully, she is human—and still an exquisite dancer, one alive with grit, grace and heartstring-tugging emotions.

Whiteside displayed beating feet and pliant jumps, proving noble in his own solos and when partnering Murphy. After their duet, this royal couple married, leaving Clara to return to her drab single bed, alone with her memories.

We’d love to say the same of this production, but Ratmansky’s is one “Nutcracker,” despite its more ethereal moments of lovely/lively dancing, best left under the tree, however stunted and lackluster that sapling remains.

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