In terms of holiday entertainment, you usually have to choose between old traditions ("bah, humbug") and new ("sparklejollytwinklejingley"). At some point, Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch must have decided his company would have its cake and eating it too, resulting in his own take on The Nutcracker, one which combines a fresh, modern approach with the traditional story. And you know the story.
It’s Christmas Eve in the Stahlbaum household, and the ballet opens in youngest daughter Clara’s room. Her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum, hand out gifts to Clara, older brother Fritz, and eldest daughter Louise before they all leave to prepare for the evening’s party. Alone, two of Clara’s toys come to life, emerging from the toy chest to briefly frolic, the first hint of the magical world to come.
The party is in full swing when the magician, Drosselmeyer, arrives with his magic show. The tricks are simple (he magicks a bouquet and pulls a rabbit out of a hat) but it’s the tale of a three dolls – the Sugar Plum Doll (Alyssa Springer), the Good Prince Doll (Ryo Kato), and the Evil King Doll (played with a memorable sneer by Christopher Gray) – that clearly captures Clara’s imagination. Later, when Clara sneaks downstairs to visit the nutcracker gifted to her by Drosselmeyer – placed on a high shelf for safety – the clock strikes midnight and the world changes. The Stahlbaum living room becomes a battleground as toy soldiers led by the nutcracker face the Rat King’s army – with Clara in the middle.
References to Tim Goodchild’s numerous costume and scenic designs will be sprinkled throughout this review, and really, not enough can be said about just how elaborate and luscious this production really is. I wouldn’t want to guess how many viewings it would take to really appreciate everything this Nutcracker has to offer. Everyone will have something different that sticks out to them. Maybe the heavenly Kingdom of Sweets, where guests wear dessert on their heads and two cat people with candy cane staffs are on guard. It could be the animal ambassadors or the big-headed vintage dolls that come bearing them as statues, or the army of toy soldiers and King Rat’s army (with shiny metallic armor, ninjas, and aww-inducing mice medics) that face off. It could be the Stahlbaum family’s shaggy dog that rightfully still tickles the audience, or the blooms artfully sewn on white tulle for the flowers. Maybe it’s the Snow Queen, in her spikey white ensemble with an entourage that includes two polar bears and a penguin, women with icicle umbrellas, and half a dozen frost giants. As I said, there’s a lot to choose from.
Goodchild’s designs add a visual cohesiveness to the production, as Welch uses them to not only tie the two acts together, but also to add more moments of emotional resonance. For example, Jessica Collado playing both Clara’s mom and the Snow Queen, and the hug they share, or the moment where Clara can’t help but run up and stare at one of the flurries, danced by Jacquelyn Long, who also plays her sister Louise.
Goodchild’s work is well supported by Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting designs and Wendall K. Harrington’s projections. Though the production never reaches Fantasia-levels of “kid-friendly media” scary, no one seems to be afraid of dark imagery, as at one point the Stahlbaum house seems to fracture and split apart and the family’s Christmas tree grows to nightmarish proportions (seriously, the proportions of cone to trunk to characters seems way off).
Welch seems to have an excellent sense of Tchaikovsky’s music, masterfully navigated by the Houston Ballet Orchestra led by Ermanno Florio, and this current iteration of The Nutcracker appears to have been tweaked slightly to its betterment. It’s wonderful to say there are no lulls or slow passages, just a non-stop ride through Clara’s imagination.
Melody Mennite’s Clara possesses a young, childishly sweet charm. She is a sunny presence on stage, with a big smile and gentle exuberance expressed through little leaps and pirouettes. Clara is the only Stahlbaum child happy to receive a multi-colored abomination of a knit hat, she’s unafraid to throw a snowball in a “serious” moment and, though she shies away from the dancers at first, she soon can’t help but run up to the flurries or chase after the butterflies. It not only speaks to her youth, it’s a great way to keep her character engaged with the action.
The flip side of childish energy can be found with Hayden Stark, who plays Clara’s brother Fritz and the Rat King. Stark is chaotic, mischievous energy at its best. He is a giver of wet willies and thrower of gifts and tantrums. He cartwheels across the stage as easily as he knocks down little kids. To put it plainly, he’s a lot of fun on stage, and he’s just as entertaining swinging his tail around as the Rat King or chilling with the medic mice during the battle with the Nutcracker and his toy soldiers.
In the fine tradition of creepy characters that appear in children’s stories, there’s Ian Casady’s Drosselmeyer. Though dressed in black and played with a touch of skulk, the benevolent magician is never threatening. And that’s despite the fact that he apparently travels with an entourage that includes two vagrants and emerges from a glowing, green-eyed cuckoo clock to join Clara on her adventure.
The divertissements of the second act continue to be an indulgent, and much appreciated, treat. Charles-Louis Yoshiyama leads the Spanish contingent in a sharp but brief interlude, with the castanet part and Goodchild’s flamenco-inspired costumes leaving little doubt to its borrowed origin. The mood then shifts in the hands of Yuriko Kajiya and Christopher Coomer (Arabian). The sensual section is marked by Kajiya and Coomer’s complimentary extensions, and particularly by Kajiya’s point work, control, and balance. It is marred by a less than graceful lift, though (in all fairness) the sloppiness may simply have been a costume-caused illusion. Nozomi Iijima (China) shepherds in another seamless tonal shift, this time to an upbeat woodwind-dominant section that includes a crowd-pleasing, two-man dragon dance.
Christopher Gray dances the role of the Lead Russian in a section that impresses in both how low and how high he and his fellow dancers can get. The Russian dance is a relentless explosion of energy, full of jumping splits and fouetté turns that are a real delight to watch. In contrast, Soo Youn Cho (Danish) is all sweet, delicate flicks of her feet in her airy dance, which includes leading an adorable group of little bunnies to safety. Harper Watters (English) captures the spirit of the preceding Trepak in his jaunty section, leading a nautically attired crew on stage with a bow-legged, sea-leg strut and then flying high.
One of the animal ambassadors, the frog, is guilty of stealing focus with his belly rubbing and hip swinging as he leads a kitchen set piece and about ten mustachioed French chefs out on stage and ahead of Oliver Halkowich’s hungry Frenchman, who throws a tantrum after receiving a delicious but pea-sized meal. From his fast feet to comedic timing, Halkowich certainly turns in one of the more memorable performances.
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The flowers then take the stage for the “Waltz of Flowers” along with a trio of bumblebees. It’s not only romantic, but a euphoric, almost triumphant section with Mennite’s Clara at the helm.
A recognizable, dreamy harp part signals the Pas de Deux, as the recently reunited Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince, danced by Karina González and Connor Walsh, take the stage. They are the picture of grace, skill and strength, with beautiful lines and photo-worthy poses. Never has it looked so effortless, as González jumps into Walsh’s arms with ease for a series of lifts, nor has it seemed so emotional. It’s one of the finest partnering efforts I’ve seen, and I never expected to see it in The Nutcracker. (It’s like turning in an Oscar-nominated performance in The Avengers. It’s not impossible, it just almost never happens for genre films.)
More than anything, it’s a reminder not to sleep on The Nutcracker. It can be easy to take for granted something that for many is a yearly tradition, but let’s not forget just how special Tchaikovsky’s score is, how skilled these dancers are, and how lucky Houston is to have an artistic director at the helm who’s clearly not afraid to tinker in the off-season, making this the best rendition of Welch’s Nutcracker we’ve seen yet.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays with a Monday performance Christmas week at Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Through December 29. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $30 to $200.