The interesting thing about The Nutcracker, maybe because of its ubiquity, is just how quickly an audience can settle into it, like a comfy sweater and warm slippers on a cold night. So, the question going into this year’s Houston Ballet production is simple: Just how comfortable would it feel this year considering this is just the second year of Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s vision of the classic holiday tale and its first time away from home?
Due to Harvey flooding out the Wortham, The Nutcracker opens for a two-week run in Sugar Land, at the Smart Financial Centre, before moving to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts at the end of the month. Though in a new location, like last year, the Soldier (Christopher Gray), Vivandere (Yumiko Fukuda), Harlequin (Samuel Rodriguez) and Columbine (Jenna Gooden) appear before the curtain rises, their comedic miming eliciting some smiles from the adults and their balloon animals delighting the children in the audience. Once the curtain does rise on Clara Stahlbaum’s (Allison Miller) bedroom, we quickly jump not only into the activity of a family preparing for a party on Christmas Eve, but also the magical world we can expect to see, as two of Clara’s toys come to life and climb out of her toy box.
The Stahlbaums’ Christmas party is soon in full swing. Though the scene is only punctuated by fleeting moments of dance, the revelers provide plenty to look at, as it seems everyone has been given a clear character, allowing for a variety of moments to play out across the stage. In particular, Clara’s relationship with her brother, Fritz (Hayden Stark, who returns later as King Rat) is well-established and quite playful, their back-and-forth teasing quite entertaining until Drosselmeyer’s (Christopher Coomer) magic show rolls on stage.
Coomer, in black cape and top hat, cuts an imposing figure as Drosselmeyer, the man who gifts Clara the titular nutcracker, which is featured in his magic show. (Not only the nutcracker, but other elements that will return late in the first act and in the second are introduced during the party, including the rats, the wooden animal statues that later are "animal ambassadors," the large porcelain-headed dolls and a book of The Nutcracker that Clara is given.) Clara is immediately taken with the nutcracker, but jealous Fritz tries to snatch it away from her. After a brief tug-of-war, the nutcracker falls to the ground and (ostensibly) breaks, leaving Clara distraught. Later, at midnight, Clara returns to a living room under siege by rats. Drosselmeyer appears and, with a little magic, the tree grows to huge proportions, a toy army comes to life, as does the nutcracker, and Clara helps to defeat the Rat King. From there, the Nutcracker Prince (Connor Walsh) escorts Clara and Drosselmeyer to the Land of the Sweets, where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy (Nozomi Iijima) and are entertained by a host of ambassadors from around the world.
The production has undergone its share of changes since it premiered last year, which may be contributing to its overall lack of clarity in storytelling. Most of the bones of the story are still present, though some elements appear lost, like the relationship between the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy, and some confusing, like Clara's disappearing act in the Land of Sweets.
Welch’s choreography is a bit underwhelming, with unfortunate lulls appearing throughout the production. The brief divertissements are like shots in the arm, especially Christopher Gray's high leaps and dizzying spins during the Russian Dance. Walsh and Iijima are also captivating together, dancing with effortless grace and gifting the audience with several beautiful lifts during their pas de deux.
The Smart Financial Centre proved to be a lovely venue, and the production utilizes two screens flanking the stage to broadcast the performance, providing an opportunity for everyone in the room — when they can tear their eyes away from the stage itself — to see up close the dancers’ footwork, which can sometimes go underappreciated from a distance.
The set, a golden-toned red in the first act, exudes warmth this year, and Tim Goodchild’s designs for the Land of Sweets and its inhabitants are captivating in their detail and whimsy, all of which is beautifully lit by Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting designs. The projections, by Wendall K. Harrington, weren’t successful; at best, the projections did not seem to add much to what was already there and at worst, they were a distracting, inelegant addition to the production.
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Conductor Ermanno Florio leads the orchestra in performing Tchaikovsky's score, which includes some of the most recognizable pieces of music around and is basically the official unofficial soundtrack of the holiday season. Turn on the TV and hear the iconic tinkling of the celesta that accompanies the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" being used to sell pancakes at Denny's or the Trepak used to advertise the NBA's Christmas Day matchups. Still, Florio’s nimble musicians tackle every note with great skill, whether it be from the tambourine that punctuates the high-energy Russian Dance or the beautiful harp strains that sweetly carry us into the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince’s pas de deux.
There is no doubt that Welch’s Nutcracker contains elements that can, over time, firmly take root in Houston’s holiday season psyche, including the Stahlbaum’s shaggy dog, the “animal ambassadors,” the lavish Land of Sweets and lush costumes, and the pre-performance balloon animals, to name a few of the things Houstonians will probably look forward to year after year. But there lacks a bit of substance under the spectacle, which probably contributed to the sense that while the kids in the crowd may have been captivated, the adults were a little restless. But it always takes time to wear in the comfiest sweater and these warm slippers, and that’s half the fun.
Performances are scheduled through December 23 at 7:30 p.m. December 14-17 and 19-23 and 2 p.m. December 16, 17 and 23 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Boulevard, Sugar Land, and from December 30 through January 6 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. (except December 31) at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $35-$165.