Once again, it’s Christmas Eve and we’re in the home of the Stahlbaum family – specifically, daughter Clara’s bedroom as her family bursts in before their annual Christmas party. Though there’s a hint that something fantastical is afoot when two of Clara’s toys come alive and refuse to stay in her toy box, it’s not until the magician, Drosselmeyer, appears to entertain the revelers, thrill the children with gifts from around the world, and regale the group with a story about a soldier, a princess and an evil king that something extraordinary begins to take hold in Clara’s head. So, later that night, after everyone’s gone home and gone to bed, Clara’s (and Welch’s) imagination fill the stage with a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.
At Sunday evening’s performance, Tyler Donatelli played the role of Clara. Donatelli’s Clara is sweet and playful, the kind of girl who waves her new ballet slippers over her head like a lasso and who sticks out her tongue to catch snowflakes. Clara is the heart, and the driver, of the story, as she moves from joyful at the party to inconsolable because her brother, Fritz, breaks the nutcracker Drosselmeyer gifts her. Fritz, played by scene stealer Shu Kinouchi, offers a more sympathetic take on Fritz’s rambunctiousness (to put it kindly), while Christopher Coomer’s Drosselmeyer is also a less intimidating figure than in years past. He is instead a more benign presence who gently accompanies Clara on her journey into the Land of Sweets.
Welch spends much of the first act (until the arrival of Natalie Varnum’s Snow Queen) establishing character and setting up story, meaning there’s not a lot of actual dance. The second act, however, more than makes up for it with a series of divertissements that compliment and add a dynamic variety to the production. With the crisp moves of Harper Watters (Spanish), the fluidity and coordination of Jacquelyn Long (Arabian), Allison Miller’s (Chinese) display of quick footwork and bounce, and the athleticism of Syvert Lorenz Garcia (English) and Chandler Dalton (Russian), who recovered well after a fall, and you’ve got a second act that starts by setting a relentless pace. Still, it’s not overwhelming, as it also includes a sweet performance from Bridget Kuhns (Danish) and the cutest little group of baby bunnies, along with a comedic interlude with Christopher Gray as a Frenchman leaping around the stage chasing after a frog he’d like to eat and a perfectly synchronized “Waltz of the Flowers.”
Visually, the stage is always jam-packed with sights to see. Tim Goodchild’s sumptuous scenic and costume designs and the cohesion they lend the production are ever more apparent after repeat viewings. From the elegance of the Stahlbaums’ home in the first act and the heavenly dreamland of the second, to the array of toys and animals that populate both, outfitted in ornately detailed, striking costumes, it’s safe to say that Goodchild’s work is the whimsical calling card of this production. The lighting designs, from Lisa J. Pinkham, beautifully illuminate Goodchild’s designs and work in concert with Wendall K. Harrington’s projections, which last year’s stop at the Smart Financial Centre (with their two video screens) did no favors.
The Houston Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of Richard Bado, tackled Tchaikovsky’s score with ease Sunday night, making Welch’s imaginative production shine in all facets. And for a production that many Houstonians will see year after year for an untold number of years to come, it's always good to see it firing on all cylinders.
Performances continue at 2 and 7:30 p.m. December 1-2, 8-9, 15-16, 22-23, 26-29; 7:30 p.m. on December 7, 14, 20, 21; and 2 p.m. December 24 at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Through December 29. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $30 to $140.