Splashy ‘Nutcracker’ loses some charm

The Washington Ballet bills its version of the holiday classic “Septime Webre’s New ‘Nutcracker’” and so, for better and worse, it is.

What the director has produced is a giant extravaganza of the time-honored ballet, full to bursting with enticing plums but with little overall shaping of a story line or sense of enchantment.

Its pace is lively and its virtues are many. Mr. Webre has great theatrical flair, a clever wit that shows up in the hijinks of the opening Christmas Eve celebration and a swift sense of pacing. He has chosen collaborators who have given him gorgeous costumes (Judanna Lynn) and, for the most part, picturesque scenery (Peter Horne) and effective lighting (Tony Tucci).

But Mr. Webre has set a pace so quick that an edge of hysteria is close to the surface. And he fails to capture the essential charm of the ballet by not following through on the story of Clara, whose childhood fantasies are the basis for the plot.

In the second act, it’s not Clara for whom the divertissements are danced; she is relegated to an adjoining box, away from the action.

It’s hard to believe that a young girl, awakened to the idea of romance, would dream of a land with government buildings in the background, but such is the setting that replaces the “Nutcracker’s” traditional second act Kingdom of Sweets. Giving it such a realistic Tidal Basin setting, complete with cherry trees, makes the variations that follow seem more like variety acts than part of a magical kingdom.

The ballet begins with an amusing cast of characters briskly heading past an elaborate snow-covered iron fence. They enter the elegant 1880s house of Clara and her parents — and, it should be added, of her brother Fritz, a mischievous imp played by 7-year-old Timothee Courouble, who effectively steals the ballet’s first act by the truthfulness and intensity of his actions.

Mr. Webre has a lazer-like ability to discover talent and he’s peppered the ballet with charming little star turns for young dancers playing themselves or bunnies, squirrels and mushrooms; all made doubly adorable by Miss Lynn’s colorful cotumes.

The dancing in Act I is relentless, everywhere there is bustle. A sophisticated Merry Widow continually drops her handkerchief, while an inebriated grandfather does some fancy footwork in a kilt.

Most over-the-top is Mr. Webre’s concept for Drosselmeyer, the magician who brings Clara the gift of a nutcracker doll. John Goding’s crazed, fluttering Drosselmeyer is forever mugging, hands always moving in dotty exaggeration.

In the scenes that follow, Clara watches the Christmas tree grow (Generally, a magic moment in the music but given the short shrift here) and the scenery expands in designs that suggest a Copacabana nightclub.

But then, some of the most imaginative moments of the evening appear.

First come miniature white mice, scampering about with little skimming steps — a magical scene, beautifully realized by the little performers — and then a battle scene with a group of red-coated young dancers marching in a bravura display of perfectly synchronized formations. And Mr. Webre has provided a funny moment, surely reassuring to young audiences, as the fierce Mouse King dies in a series of exaggerated comic spasms.

The snow scene that follows was suitably windswept, with Mr. Webre providing some of his best classical choreography in this section. It was well danced but marred by the dancers’ hard-blocked pointe shoes that sounded like clattering horses’ hooves. Maki Onuki was the Snow Queen. Jonathan Jordan was brilliant in his classical technique as the Snow King (He earlier danced an electrifying Katchina doll).

The second act opened with an appealing dance for big and little butterflies and a stage fancifully enhanced by mushrooms and tiny forest creatures. Mr. Webre has a way of giving children simple striking things to do and then rehearsing them until they turn into seasoned performers.

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