The ballet “The Nutcracker” was not a hit when it was first presented in Saint Petersburg in 1892. I can only speculate that its tepid reception was due to an unfortunate lack of glitter.
By contrast, the Milwaukee Ballet’s glitter-filled production of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic is holiday magic personified. Much of the mystery, enchantment and awe-inspiring tone of the show comes from its fanciful design, complete with a dazzling proscenium arch featuring many of the ballet’s characters in gold and lights and the nutcracker himself peering down on spectators from its apex. (Spectacular costumes and inventive scenic design by Zack Brown.)
The rest of the holiday mischief can be attributed to the charismatic lead character — Drosselmeyer the toy maker (played by Patrick Howell for the performance I attended on December 9). Dressed in a multi-layered, flowing plum overcoat, with gray curls surrounding his face like the coif of a gentleman mad scientist, Drosselmeyer constructs the wooden toy nutcracker for Clara as a special gift to begin the story. And as glittering decorations, toys, foods, dancing, dueling and romances become more elaborate with each passing hour on Christmas Eve, we see Drosselmeyer behind the scenes sprinkling his magic dust to create each escalating, charmed moment. With no Santa Claus or religious references to the holiday, he embodies the magical spirit of the Christmas season in “The Nutcracker,” with an eyebrow raised and an impish smirk on his face.
If the toy maker is the master of the revels, obviously Clara is the lucky young lady at the center of this astonishing holiday night. Portrayed as both energetic and lighter than air by Alana Griffith, Clara retains a child’s indignation when teased by her older brother, her sense of tragedy when the nutcracker is temporarily damaged, and her impudence when she feels ignored by her older sister Marie (Annia Hidalgo) as Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Karl (Randy Crespo), attempts to steal a few romantic moments.
A shimmering Christmas party in splendid party clothes, complete with formal dancing, new toys and dolls that come to life would send any child into a fairy-tale dream world, but in Clara’s case, the shadows of her lovely evening become even grander when Drosselmeyer deploys his magic powder once again, whisking her onto a train and off to a land filled with snow, more toys and sweets.
The fantasy section of “The Nutcracker” sparkles like the animated holiday windows in department stores up and down New York’s Fifth Avenue. Tiny white flakes literally fluttered down to the ground when the Snow Queen (Lahna Vanderbush) and her snowflake entourage took to the stage. Clara and her bratty brother Fritz (Garrett Glassman) even gathered up enough “snow” to throw at each other playfully.
Inside the grand hall of toy land, Drosselmeyer’s dolls from around the world floated into view on fantastical carousel animals — such as seahorses and dragons — that appeared to be made of blown glass. And to director and choreographer Michael Pink’s credit, the dance sequences for the toys were markedly different from one another, easily keeping even the littlest audience members engaged. The Arabian couple (Lizzie Tripp and Ransom Wilkes-Davis) enters and exits dramatically with overhead lifts, Tripp melting her body into Wilkes-Davis to slide onto the stage, using angles and lines evocative of Middle Eastern art. The Chinese toy delegation, led by Luis Mondragon, includes an ornately decorated lion puppet, complete with a huge, expressive mask that blinks its eyes as its six feet dance along wildly. And the limber Jack dolls (Barry Molina, Isaac Sharratt, and Isaac Allen) made an impressive troupe of clowns and harlequins —excelling in both slapstick and acrobatics, including backflips, cartwheels and impossibly high jumps.
There are dozens of children who participate in each performance; all students of the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy. While the tiny little angels, clad in white onesies and rainbow-colored wings, were notable for their cuteness, older students flooded the stage with impressive Russian folk dancing around the even more impressively imposing Mother Ginger figure (Madeleine Rhode, on stilts I assume). And for supreme comic relief, three young performers waddled across the stage as geese, extending their wings to say hello.
The 2+ hour performance is a gorgeous Christmas card for the audience; visually stunning in dreamy jewel tones and gold, buoyed by the exceptional music of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. With all these production elements going full tilt, it’s easy to overlook the extraordinary talent on display throughout the adult cast of leading artists. With athleticism and precision they float through the scenes, spinning and leaping, creating magic with every graceful movement. Most of the company has probably grown up performing this holiday chestnut each year but the energy they bring makes the story feel brand new.
With multiple casts of all ages, enormous set pieces, scores of elaborate costumes, a pit full of musicians and a handful of special effects to keep the technical crew on their toes, “The Nutcracker” is more complicated than any child’s toy under the tree this season. But presented by the Milwaukee Ballet, it looks like a perfectly wrapped present, presented effortlessly. With lots of glitter.