On a scale of one to ten, let’s give the Oakland Ballet Nutcracker eight sugarplums. One for being different enough to keep even the most jaded balletomane from nodding off and sticking close to the E.T.A. Hoffman tale from whence all Nutcrackers spring. Another for not having every little kid in town on the stage. A couple more for casting real grownup dancers as the child and her Nutcracker Prince and giving them real steps to do. One more for having Michael Morgan’s Oakland East Bay Symphony doing a fine job in the pit. Still another for the venue – the elegant, over-the-top art deco Paramount Theater, and the rest just because it’s Christmastime.
The dancing’s pretty good too, even given a couple of stumbles and a lackluster corps. Some of it, especially Lara Deans Lowe and Victor Temple in the "Arabian Variation" and Erin Yarbrough’s Sugar Plum Fairy is quite fine. And nobody ever looked to the Nutcracker for great virtuoso dancing anyway.
What Ronn Guidi’s choreography lacks in originality, it makes up for in clever handling of the familiar plot. The curtain opens on the magical – and slightly sinister – Uncle Drosselmayer (a very funny Howard Sayette) putting the finishing touches on his Christmas gifts with the help of his mischievous nephew (Dante Adela, who will ultimately morph into the Nutcracker Prince). They load the lot on a sleigh and, after some comic shtick between the magician and the kid, arrive at the house of their hosts, where the children, like real children everywhere, have been trying to sneak a peek at their presents. It’s all set in a nice, old fashioned Victorian living room, full of rocking horses and teddy bears.
This is great. No big party scene, just Drosselmayer and the kid, the family and a suitably pert maid. And all those animated toys – a giant cat, fox and dancing teddy bear and a trio of mechanical doll, toy soldier and giant rodent that prefigures the heroine’s dream.
True to the original tale, she is named Marie here, not Clara, and charmingly danced by Rhea Roderick. It is she who breaks her new Nutcracker, not her bratty brother Fritz and it is Drosselmayer’s nephew who magically mends it, winning her heart as he does so.
After the party breaks up all the usual things happen. The Christmas tree grows to fill the stage and the clock sprouts the wings of an owl as it chimes midnight. The battle between the invading giant mice and the toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker Prince, is not a battle for possession of the Christmas booty, as elsewhere, but for Marie’s heart and hand. Luckily, the Nutcracker’s forces win – as usual – but not before some more hilarity, due mostly to Temple as an extremely cool Mouse King and his troops, who employ pink parasols against the toy soldiers’ swords.
So it’s off to the Snow Kingdom where Gianna Marinai-Davy makes a graceful Snow Queen, John DeSerio a little less so as her cavalier. No humming chorus but you have to economize somewhere and Morgan and the musicians are doing such a good job you hardly miss it.
After intermission, Marie and her Prince are escorted to the Kingdom of Sweets where more scrimping and more ingenuity is on display. There is only one Ivan dancing the "Russian Variation" instead of three and the scenery, a series of curtains that lift to display a different backdrop for each dance, looks a little tired. But the interminable "Waltz of the Flowers" is made more interesting with solos by all the principal couples. The pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier (Mario Alonzo) is truly fine and don’t forget those sinuous, mesmerizing Arabians, mentioned earlier.
In addition to the sugary delights, there is a psychological dimension to this Nutcracker as well. It is clearly made to represent the romantic dream of a young girl teetering on the brink of adolescence. At the end, instead of abandoning the sleeping Marie, all the characters enter her living room, behind a scrim and beckon to her to return to their world. And there are few in the audience who wouldn’t like to follow along.
December 14, 2001 – Suzanne Weiss