Right at the start, the world premiere of Stanton Welch’s choreography of The Nutcracker signaled this would be different. Instead of party guests traveling through the snow to get to the Stahlbaum family home, we start with Clara center stage addressing her toys, toys that don’t intend to stay cooped up in their toy box.
This is a new Clara, one who dances and acts far more than in the previous and beloved Ben Stevenson version. On opening night Melody Mennite shone in the role, totally believable as a young girl entranced by toys and Christmas but on the verge of growing up. She has not been sidelined here.
Anyone who has seen various Nutcrackers knows that, well, sometimes they can hit boring patches. This version avoids that, and parents especially should know that not only will they be able to appreciate the incredible dancing, but they and their children will laugh frequently as we move from the Stahlbaum home to the Kingdom of Sweets. This Nutcracker is funny and enormous and breathtaking all wrapped up in a visual spectacle of exquisite costumes and lighting. It is an extravaganza in the best sense of that word.
Children are everywhere onstage. Dressed up as behind-twitching bees, as oh-so-scared little lambs, as tiptoeing tiny angels, they weave their way throughout this production and they dance, even the smallest ones. You never know when they are going to pop into a scene.
In fact, and in general, this is a Nutcracker that keeps everyone on his or her toes. Something is going on all the time and it is easy to believe that the animals and toys onstage are truly real – just wait till soldiers in the Rat King’s army run down the aisles to the stage. Audience gasps quickly turned to appreciative laughter.
The roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince are still meaty and essential. There was real chemistry and unbelievable artistry in the Act II pairing of principals Sara Webb and Connor Walsh on opening night. Lifts were effortless; they flowed seamlessly as part of the dancing, never feeling like it was one-two-three-go time. Both danced beautifully, with grace and athleticism, to the familiar Tchaikovsky classic score, performed with precision and beauty by the orchestra, led by Houston Ballet Music Director Ermanno Florio.
In fact, Artistic Director Welch’s choreography throughout seemed particularly attuned to the music, making even the most routine seem new and exciting. Tim Goodchild, the internationally known scenic and costume designer, has created a world of brightness and detail with — among other creatures — blue butterflies, a larger-than-life-size frog accompanied by the Frenchman who would eat him, and a bulldog complete with cigar. He is aided greatly in all this by the top-notch lighting work by Lisa J. Pinkham and the transformative projection work of Wendall K. Harrington. And, of course, we can't miss the opportunity of pointing out that the story synopsis in the playbill is delivered in clever rhyming holiday verse by D.L. Groover (our longtime Houston Press theater critic.)
Younger and annoying brother Fritz (Derek Dunn showing a decided gift for comedy) is still there, and now older sister Louise (Jacquelyn Long) is restored to the story. Linnar Looris and Katharine Precourt ably danced the roles of the parents, with Precourt also performing the role of the Snow Queen and Looris the Harem Master.
Ian Casady was a fine Drosselmeyer, the magician who brings the Nutcracker Prince to the party and later transports Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets. And as usual, the audience favorite during the Parade of Ambassadors was the Russian (Shu Kinouchi) who executed his leaps and splits with abandon.
On opening night, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner addressed the sold-out house, lauding the ballet for its vision and for all the donors who helped underwrite this new production. Act I ended with a roar from the crowd, usually reserved for the finale. The finale was greeted with a standing ovation as soon as the curtain went down, appreciation that rolled and rolled through the confetti snow raining down on the audience.
Houston Ballet took a chance by stepping away from the tried and true to say, "This was wonderful and treasured, but let’s try something else." And Stanton Welch and his dancers have met that challenge with something marvelous indeed. Go see it. It will take your breath away.
Performances are scheduled through December 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Monday December 26 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. No performance Christmas Day. Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $35-$140.