Cincinnati Ballet’s The New Nutcracker is, in a word, spectacular. And I mean that in the literal sense: It’s truly a spectacle.
Thursday evening’s well-attended opening night at the Aronoff Center offered an impressive smorgasbord of visual and dance delights.
It’s clear the Ballet’s Artistic Director and CEO Victoria Morgan, who choreographed this new version, wanted to go full-out for this long-awaited and much-hyped production — termed “The World Premiere of the Decade,” according to the marketing slogan.
Indeed, Morgan pulled out all the stops: magic tricks, various characters suddenly flying skywards, robotic mice, zany props galore, lavishly elaborate sets designed by John Ezell, plus a dazzling array of costumes from Tony Award-nominated designer Carrie F. Robbins. There’s everything from intricate Victorian styles in rustling taffeta, to gossamer white gowns, to silly and sexy sartorial surprises.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of the Ballet’s Maestro Carmon DeLeone, plays the beloved Tchaikovsky score in the pit. (This required the pit’s expansion capabilities to be put to use for the first time in the theater’s history.)
Based on the production’s fine, if outsized, qualities and audience reactions, the show could certainly be deemed a success — not to mention a good time. You might enjoy it the way you take in a James Bond film's exotic locales. Chances are, you don’t stop and think, “Oh, how extravagant.” You just sit back and enjoy it.
In a prior conversation, Morgan said she wanted to make sure the show was inviting and accessible — and it is, and serves as an enchanting escape.
Think a touch of The Wizard of Oz. It’s family-friendly, fast-paced and fun, with occasional doses of broad humor. But the upbeat pacing comes at a sacrifice of some segues and narrative transitions. Sometimes there’s so much bustling activity that the story’s few plot points seem easy to miss. Did the youthful Clara, capably played by Lorelei Robinson, actually fall asleep to dream? The party scene generally has a large cast onstage, but this one feels especially busy. But, hey, what a wonderfully festive and lively party!
Given how ambitious this production really is — what with all the props and flying, scene changes and so on — it’s a wonder that the show went off with very few glitches. A large, heavy-looking bowl proved to be nearly too cumbersome. Clara and the Nutcracker Prince were almost obscured as they watched parts of the Act II suite of performances-within-the-performance unfold. Minor issues.
Thanks her 14-plus years as artistic director, Morgan has the advantage of knowing her longtime company dancers and their strengths well. In a prior New Nutcracker interview, Morgan said when she began choreographing certain sections, she had asked some dancers what moves they love to do best, what moves are most exciting to watch, and so on. And their extensive experience working together shows. The Russian section, performed on Thursday by Selahattin Erkan, Stephen Jacobsen and newcomer Patric Palkens, explodes with exuberant energy. Principals Cervilio Miguel Amador and Janessa Touchet shine in near-perfection in their grand pas de deux as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cotton Candy Cavalier. Their partnering feels precise and seamless. Daring lifts soar, their pirouettes astound. Choreographically, I was anticipating even a bit stronger emphasis on intricate petit allegro footwork (small jumping and turning steps) for Touchet’s variation. But what’s there is clean and pristine. Not unexpectedly, the choreography here was created, or “set,” on these two, and they really deliver the goods.
Morgan dispensed with some tutus and bestowed a rather more modern take on the Snow Forest Scene, the first (and arguably the more inspiring) of the two larger Corps de Ballet pieces. Far from the traditional icy snow queens, the dancers become lively snow sprites, leaping about with abandonment. As snowflakes fall from above, the dancers toss snow from their fists in time to musical accents like so much celebratory confetti.
Other elements evolved less. Expect to see a few familiar keepsakes from the prior production: Associate Artistic Director Devon Carney reprises his Herr Drosselmeyer role but with a twist. Resplendent in mismatched stockings, a wild wig and with a few tricks up his sleeve, he channeled a bit of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. As a dancing doll, Dawn Kelly delights once again, but in a much more colorfully outlandish costume. And this Mother Hen dance is a hoot.
Does it live up to the hype? Essentially, yes. Yet with all the spectacle of this production, it teeters on a precarious tightrope balance of its eye-candy extravaganza potentially overshadowing its choreography and strong dance performances. But no matter, really; it is meant to be a big ticket-selling blockbuster. The New Nutcracker brims with the light, bubbly joy of a glass of champagne. Relax and enjoy the spectacular party.
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