Dance

Houston Ballet's Nutcracker a Can't-Miss Holiday Production

Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as the Sugar Plum Fairy with Artists of Houston Ballet and Students of the Houston Ballet Academy in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker.
Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as the Sugar Plum Fairy with Artists of Houston Ballet and Students of the Houston Ballet Academy in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2022). Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
I’m loathe to say this, but I have a confession to make: I’m a critic who dreads reviewing The Nutcracker each year.

Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s take on the holiday classic premiered in 2016 and there are only so many times you can see the same production – no, it’s not the production. It’s that there are only so many ways to describe the celesta before not even a thesaurus can help you.

As much as I hate to out myself as a Nutcracker dread-er, it’s important you know so you’ll understand the magnitude of this review. Simply put, this is – easily – the best production of Welch’s The Nutcracker that the Houston Ballet has put on yet. It’s the most balanced – have the male dancers ever been this well utilized for this show – and most cohesive production, beautiful and brisk, and already I’m happily anticipating seeing it again next year.

That’s how good it is, and credit to Welch and crew for continuing to tinker, because it has elevated an already good production to another level.

But let’s back up.

The story, drawn from E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” is as familiar as ever. It’s Christmas with the Stahlbaum family – Dr. Stahlbaum (Christopher Coomer), Mrs. Stahlbaum (Jessica Collado), Louise (Alyssa Springer), Fritz (Simone Acri), and Clara (Tyler Donatelli) – and from the beginning, in Clara’s room, as we witness two of her toys come to life and frolic about, we know that something magical is going on. But it’s not until the arrival of Riley McMurray’s Drosselmeyer, a magician who delights the attendees of the Stahlbaum Christmas party with gifts and the tale of a prince, turned into a nutcracker by an evil king, that that the seeds for the fantasy we’re about to see are fully planted.

Later that night, long after the party’s ended and everyone is in bed, Clara sneaks downstairs to view her new nutcracker doll, a gift from Drosselmeyer, and finds herself entering a new world, one cleverly established with Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting and Wendall K. Harrington’s projection designs. Drosselmeyer appears, the set deconstructs, and the next thing you know, we’re in the midst of a battle between the Nutcracker and his forces against the Rat King and his. They fight under the Christmas tree, but it’s Clara who saves the day by stealing the Rat King’s crown and running him off. Her prize for her bravery? A magical journey to the top of the Christmas tree, where a procession – including an elephant and a line of little angels – lead Clara, Drosselmeyer, and the Nutcracker Prince, now in human form, to the golden gates of the Land of Sweets. There, the Nutcracker Prince (Chase O’Connell) and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Beckanne Sisk) are reunited, and Clara is entertained by a second act full of fun divertissements.
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Houston Ballet First Soloist Tyler Donatelli as Clara and Corps de Ballet dancer Riley McMurray as Drosselmeyer in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2022). Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Welch’s storytelling feels tighter in this iteration, and maybe it’s just the inclusion of a full cast, 61 company dancers and more than 300 young dancers – the first since the start of the pandemic – that makes this show feel more alive, more full. The production never stops moving, and there’s no shortage of visuals with Tim Goodchild’s sumptuous designs (including an abundance of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the first act). And on top of that is an incredibly charismatic cast.

From the moment Neal Burks (Harlequin), Zoe Lucich (Columbine), Samuel Rodriguez (Soldier), and Kali Kleiman (Vivandere) emerged from the wings, it was obvious that the audience was ready and more than willing to be swept away to the Land of Sweets along with Clara. The foursome held court, the crowd eating out of their hands in near silence, happily watching them before the start of both acts doing everything from stretching and shadow boxing to making balloon animals and putting on white gloves with the utmost precision.

At the center of this production is Donatelli’s Clara, a bubbly, sweet girl whose holiday spirit is so great, it cannot be dampened for long by an obnoxious brother – Acri’s bratty Fritz, a cartwheeling menace who perfectly pouts and annoys his way through the first act – or when said obnoxious brother breaks her nutcracker. It’s worth noting that with so much going on during the party, there are great examples of background character work, including Harper Watters who is an unexpectedly good foil to Fritz as the butler.

McMurray is the creepy (they know what they’re doing when he emerges from inside a grandfather clock to sneak up and loom over Clara) but ultimately benevolent Drosselmeyer. With all that he brings with him to the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party – from his attendants, the figures we’ll see again later in the second act, and the tale of the nutcracker prince – it’s Kellen Hornbuckle, who dances as the Sugar Plum Doll, who deserves a shout out for her wobbly, stiff, heartbroken solo.

Now let’s talk divertissements. Though the show-stopping red and black costuming and beautiful hand fans couldn’t do much to enhance the unoriginality that plagues the Spanish section, each dance that follows is an example of excellence. A regal Yuriko Kajiya leads a skillful, sultry Arabian dance, highlighted by an impressive display of control and flanked by the cutest little snake charmers. The tonal shift to the next section (Chinese) couldn’t be any wider, but with a sprightly Mónica Gómez, it’s seamless. Yu Wakizuka leads the Russian delegation and, as always, the high jumping splits and leaps are a crowd pleaser.
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Houston Ballet Principals Beckanne Sisk as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Chase O’Connell as the Nutcracker Prince with Artists of Houston Ballet and Students of the Houston Ballet Academy in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2022). Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Bridget Kuhns effortlessly takes on the airy Danish dance, but it’s her acting – from the nervous look she throws towards the approaching foxes as she spins on stage to the moment she puts said foxes in their place for threatening her adorable little charges – that really catches the eye. Neal Burks follows in a jaunty, all-too-brief English section, before Elivelton Tomazi arrives as the dandy Frenchman. It’s the lowest of high comedy, watching as Tomazi – with long dark curls and Van Dyke – throws himself on the floor, chases after his own country’s representative animal (a focus-stealing frog) with a knife and fork in his hands, and yes, also gets some dancing in there, too.

Donatelli dances a pretty, dainty little section with the flowers. The Lead Flowers (Aoi Fujiwara, Mackenzie Richter, Chae Eun Yang, Alyssa Springer, Harper Watters, Naazir Muhammad, Syvert Lorenz Garcia, and Luzemberg Santana) put together an exceptional display of lifts and catches, and there is something incredibly triumphant about this section.

If the “Waltz of Flowers” is triumph, then the emotional release and catharsis is the partnering of Sisk and O’Connell during their pas de deux. It’s light and romantic, and the two share a connection that’s palpable. Welch’s choreography moves between delicate and dramatic, and it’s so effective that it too is celebratory.

Finally, is there any bit of music more anticipated each year than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score? It’s possible that we don’t give enough credit to Tchaikovsky just because this music is so ubiquitous. But it’s that ubiquity that poses the greatest challenge to the Houston Ballet Orchestra, and challenge they meet head on in each production. The audience, whether they realize it or not, has heard bits of this music so often they could probably viscerally recognize a misstep in their sleep. And yet, conductor Ermanno Florio once again leads the orchestra through it flawlessly.

The good news is that for many Houstonians The Nutcracker is a tradition, so you’ll likely go see it anyways. But, if for some reason you were thinking about sitting it out this year, don’t. This year, The Nutcracker is an absolutely can’t-miss production.

Performances of The Nutcracker continue at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, December 20-23 and December 26-27; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. Fridays and December 19, through December 27 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $30-$200.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.