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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 20,

2000 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Nutcracker’

Snow falling on snowballs" will be one of the

wonderful

stage pictures that stays with me from American Repertory Ballet’s

winsome and witty new production of "The Nutcracker." The

Snowballs are eight young dancers in big rotund snowball suits who

dance playfully with eight elegant snow maidens in ice-blue gowns,

all swirling within a beautiful frozen silver birch forest.

This lovely vision forms the closing moments of Act I of Graham

Lustig’s

ambitious new "Nutcracker" production. Set in early

20th-century

Vienna, with a reconceived libretto by Lustig, the production is

something

of a work in progress. As seen at the State Theater on Sunday,

December

10, accompanied by the American Repertory Ballet Orchestra, the ballet

opened with three successively smart scenes for a dazzling first act,

but fell down somewhat (literally and figuratively) in Act II.

"The

Nutcracker" will be presented at the War Memorial Theater,

Trenton,

on Saturday, December 23, in two matinee shows. It returns to McCarter

Theater (accompanied by recorded music) from Thursday, December 28,

through Sunday, December 31.

This year’s huge investment of ARB’s money, time, and resources, is

clearly evident in the new production that is a feast for the eyes

— particularly for those with a sweet tooth. Party scenes, vivid

dreams, and dancing candies are all remarkably alive. Future seasons

should provide time to develop some of the new choreography and

perhaps

enliven the rather static Act II stage picture.

Lustig, a former ballet soloist who admits to having no ties, either

professional or sentimental to America’s perennial holiday favorite,

has re-conceived E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of Marie and her dream of

the Nutcracker Prince. His program notes describe how he created his

ballet "after listening long and hard to the brilliant score."

And this fountain of inspiration is everywhere evident. The little

girl’s romantic awakenings are enacted here with the help of a

ballerina

who steps into the dream to play Marie as a young woman. In Sunday’s

performance these complementary figures were so nicely realized by

Kate Castranova and Mary Barton that the transformation was almost

seamless.

There’s no denying that designer Zack Brown’s creative and colorful

new costumes are extraordinary, both in their whimsy and their

verisimilitude.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite among such winners as the

perfect

attire of the Viennese school girls, the dazzling matched Empire-line

party dresses for Marie and her mother, and the exotic Act II costumes

that include a stunning pink reribboned Nightingale. Perhaps the most

spectacular was the sumptuously attired, fin-de-siecle Rat King in

his black and gold cloak lined in purple silk, set off by an ermine

pillbox hat.

Lustig loves to tell stories, and this

"Nutcracker"

manifests an affinity for the British holiday pantomime tradition.

He also loves to tell stories within stories. In Act I, set in a

spacious

drawing room of the Viennese modernist avant-garde, such stage stories

follow one another fast and furiously. A big gridded picture window

even allows us to follow two scenes simultaneously, one indoors and

one outside on the frozen lake. From a lovely young couple’s courtship

that is interrupted by a children’s snowball fight, to a party episode

with a naughty boy and a rubber rat that foreshadows Marie’s bad

dream,

there’s almost too much here for the eye and ear to follow.

The scenario for the battle with the rats, emerging from a monstrous

serving of squishy cake, presumably dreamed up in concert with

designer

Brown, is as funnily scary as can be. With dazzlingly uniformed troops

on both sides, there are few fake pyrotechnics employed, instead the

rats are armed with tastefully designed table knives and forks.

Such a scene works splendidly, yet sometimes Lustig sacrifices

American

ballet goers’ expectations (or perhaps just my own) for stage

traditions

— such as a Waltz of the Flowers for many blossoms rather than

the six we saw here — for his original ideas. Pleasure comes in

many forms and there’s no denying that there’s pleasure to be had,

especially for returning parents and grandparents, in the familiar.

Brown’s setting for Act II, in the Kingdom of the Sweets, here called

"Confiturembourg," is enlivened by huge stylized flowers that

rise up to flank a distant candy castle. A gingerbread wall and entry

gate runs along the back of the scene, but become progressively boring

as the act unfolds.

The famously sparkling and sometimes virtuosic variations for the

candies of all nations, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s memorable

melodies,

are customarily performed before an appreciative onstage audience

as well as the one seated in the theater. Here, however, Marie and

her Prince sit alone onstage, nestled in a hollow cupcake, to watch

the festivities. This puts the dancers on the spot and leaves little

latitude for missteps and second casts. Why Lustig has eschewed the

opportunity to keep his ensemble of exquisitely costumed performers

onstage to help animate the Act II stage picture is a mystery to me.

A creative and capable choreographer, Lustig’s new dances are, at

present, uneven. They range from the cheerfully inventive to the

dramatically

difficult, with some, such as the Arabian variation, needing a touch

more work.

Most problematic in Sunday’s performance was Sugar Plum Fairy Jennifer

Provins and her Cavalier Peter de Grasse (one of four couples

alternating

in the role), who experienced real difficulty. In the show’s most

climactic moments they struggled through what struck me as a

lackluster

Grand Pas de Deux, one that failed to build in sympathy with the music

in either form or execution.

Nevertheless, the evening comes to a touching conclusion as the dream

recedes and we see the two Maries on stage together, each in their

respective reality.

Over a span of 36 seasons, each ARB "Nutcracker" has had its

weaknesses and strengths. This latest incarnation has all the makings

of a new favorite, once Lustig brings the second half of his

production

up to the high standard he sets in the first.

— Nicole Plett

The Nutcracker, American Repertory Ballet, War

Memorial Theater , Trenton, 609-984-8400. $15 to $40. Saturday,

December 23, 1 and 4:30 p.m.

McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $26

to $38. Thursday, December 28, 7 p.m.; Friday, December 29, 1 and

7 p.m.; Saturday, December 30, 1 and 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, December

31, 1 p.m.


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