Forget the dancing, which is minimal. And forget the new storyline, which is pretty dreadful. But it’s hard to overlook the name Gerard Allesandrini when you look at the names of the collaborators behind this deliberately but also desperately satiric musical “The Nutcracker and I,” inspired as you have already guessed by the famous Nutcracker ballet.
It isn’t because the length of Allesandrini’s name takes up so much space in the credits, but rather because he is renowned as the award-winning writer and director of all 15 acclaimed editions of the theatrical spoofs “Forbidden Broadway.” In collaboration with book writer Peter Brash, and even more audaciously with the late composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose music has been employed/enjoined, Allesandrini has contributed a plethora of hilarious lyrics. That they alone are able to keep a smile on your face even when you may be inclined to wince at the book is no small achievement.
As expected, great liberties have been taken with the story as we more familiarly know it. A rather lame if not totally misguided attempt has been made by Brash to keep the romantic aspect of the original story, but give it a sense of modernity. In this version, Celeste (Clara in the ballet) is a teenager who lives with her mother, father, and younger brother in Pawchusett, an economically depressed New England mill town. An accident occurs while Celeste is rehearsing for the annual production of the Nutcracker ballet. This leaves her with a broken foot and a head responding to an overdose of prescription and health pills given to her by her ditsy doctor and crass parents, thus the opportunity for a whopper of a dream.
Considering Zack, the crude, muscle-bound, stuck-on-himself, dim-witted Olympic snowboarder her bankrupt parents present to her as a present and want her to date, it is no wonder that Celeste dreams of her ideal. He, of course, is her Christmas gift, the handsome Nutcracker Prince who with a toss of his “magic nuts” whisks them off on a New York adventure in a snow globe where he not only rescues her from Zack’s pernicious assaults but also from a range of a New York types, expressly designed to be politically incorrect. This sets the stage for the best part of the show: a multi-cultural medley that includes the lyrical ranting of a bodega owner, a Hindu cabbie, a pizza delivery boy, three Russians, and one Jewish Chinese chef.
Unfortunately, Brash’s book, somewhat reminiscent of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, is only fitfully accommodating to the possibilities and hardly in the same league with Allesandrini’s often gleefully giddy lyrics. That we can throw accolades at Tchaikovsky’s delightful melodies goes without saying. Brash has made a tactical error by not making the young lovers as blissfully over-the-top as the other characters, and they remain attractive but steadfastly uninteresting throughout this otherwise deliriously engineered romp.
It is to their credit that Haley Carlucci, who plays Celeste (the character of Clara in the ballet) and A.J. Shively, who plays the Nutcracker Prince, survive the onslaught of madcap mayhem into which they are catapulted. The lovely and talented Carlucci, who was Maria in the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” sings beautifully (when her voice isn’t made extra shrill by electronic enhancement) and dances well (given the few steps allotted her by choreographer Joseph Simeone). Shively, who made his Broadway debut as Jean-Michel in the revival of “La Cage Aux Folles,” is more than wooden, but let’s say that he cracks nuts (“Do you know how difficult it is to crack a beechnut?”) with aplomb.
Amidst the shtick and the satire, Celeste and the Nutcracker Prince mainly appear as distracting intruders among a company of expert farceurs who, when given the opportunity and mostly in the second act, provides this musical with its funniest moments. Most often, the stage belongs to Peter Scolari, who as the bespectacled Professor Hoffman, a flustered toy policeman, a loony George Balanchine, and even en travestie in a ball gown, proves to be a fearlessly intrepid performer.
Theatrical trouper Annie Golden is his match in deploying her instinct for insinuating more than the role offers. In the dual roles of Clara’s crass mother and as the more endearingly caricatured Sugar Rush Fairy, Zack’s mischievous accomplice, Golden leaves no doubt with her zany performance that she is suffering from the effects of a sugar rush. Without having to answer the call of being sur les points, she is a flat-footed hoot in her candy-decorated tutu and pink cotton candy hair.
David Murin’s whimsical costume designs are a plus. Each member of the supporting cast, including Nick Dalton as Zack, Edward Staudenmayer as a Russian waiter and Tchaikovsky, and Aidan Benevides as Celeste’s brother and a pizza boy, add their own brand of zaniness into the antics that director David Saint has firmly wedged into James Youman’s bright, eye-candy settings. As it is now, the book needs a new direction and Celeste and the Nutcracker Prince are in desperate need of a more humor-driven course of romantic activity. Lyrics are important but should not be the main support for a musical. Right now they are the primary source of our pleasure. Despite its occasional treats, “The Nutcracker and I” needs a more amusing book if it wants to qualify as traditional holiday entertainment.
“The Nutcracker and I,” through Saturday, December 31, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $40 to $70. 732-246-7717.