- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Washington Ballet’s lavishly produced “Nutcracker” is a mixed bag — a plum pudding containing many delights but also some missteps that mar the effect and make the whole less than the sum of its parts.

The first act, with its snow-covered entrance, grand Victorian house dressed for the holidays, colorfully costumed guests, picturesquely sweet little girls and fiendishly naughty little boys, makes for a great bustle. And there’s the rub.

The bustle is at near-hysteria level throughout the scene. Almost every person on stage is over the top, overacting wildly. The children run about unchecked; adults wave their hands frantically. Drosselmeyer — often a mysterious figure central to the action who guides the young heroine Clara through her romantic dream — is a person possessed, twitching, shaking and flailing in a manner painful to watch.

But there’s a flip side: the ceaseless activity is often amusing, and the swift pace keeps the audience entertained.

The first act emphasizes pantomime, but the moments of grown-up dance were carried off with dispatch by the three live dolls brought on by Drosselmeyer — Marcelo Martinez, Kara Cooper and Jonathan Jordan. (As with most of the roles there are alternate casts over the course of the run.)

The battle scene is a highlight, with wonderfully drilled toy soldiers (students from the school) bringing down the house with their precision; cannons firing; and a Rat King who dies comically enough to allay young fears.

Septime Webre’s tweaking of this ballet classic seldom seems a conceptual improvement on the original. Its Americana/Washington, D.C., aspects make a better PR talking point than a revelatory addition. Handing out small American Indian war bonnets for young boys’ Christmas presents was a fanciful touch, but Frederick Douglass, George Washington and King George made a scant impression.

The Snow Scene was a lovely fantasy of whirling dancers and swirling flakes, but the introduction of off-season cherry trees framing a barren Washington backdrop lets the holiday atmosphere drop with a thud in the second act.

Mr. Webre has virtually eliminated the international flavor of that act’s divertissements, except for a Spanish dance. The cool, Oriental-tinged music Tchaikovsky originally wrote for a sultry veiled Arabian woman now accompanies an acrobatic Anacosta Indian duet and his vivid section for the Russian Trepak is usurped by a coonskin-hatted Frontiersman, though here the switch comes off with good-humored gusto.

The cast of his ambitious production numbers close to a hundred, and the director has seamlessly integrated into the production students at all levels from the Washington School of Ballet, as well as the Studio Company and the Washington Ballet dancers, now numbering 19. Due to the departure of Michele Jimenez and an injury to Brianne Bland the company is a little thin in its female ranks and has recruited a female guest artist.

Casts will rotate during the run, keeping dancers on their toes (sorry) as they move between roles. Last Friday night, lead roles were performed by Hiromi Hoshina as a graceful Clara; John Goding as Drosselmeyer; Elizabeth Gaither (Snow Queen); Jared Nelson (an elegant Snow King); Laura Urgelles and Alvaro Palau (Anacosta Indians); Mr. Nelson (a high-flying Frontiersman); Maki Onuki and Mr. Jordan (a radiant Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier); and Luis Torres in roles ranging from Clara’s father, to the Rat King and Mother Barnum — this version’s variation on Mother Ginger — who rides atop a spectacular carousel.

The small orchestra under Scott Speck’s direction struggled manfully with the luminous Tchaikovsky score, but the thin string section was often overpowered by the more raucous winds and horns. Still, a live orchestra is an important, indeed essential, pleasure of a proper “Nutcracker.”

“The Nutcracker” is more than just a revered artifact: it is often a child’s introduction not only to the delights but the poetic wonder of ballet. This “Nutcracker” is full of delights, but its poetry and sense of childlike wonder are often hidden by its driving pace.

**1/2

WHAT: The Washington Ballet in “The Nutcracker”

WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday and Dec. 20-23, at various times

WHERE: The Warner Theatre

TICKETS: $29 to $175

PHONE: 202-397-SEAT

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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