The Magic of the Nutcracker
It’s a wonderful family show, with some memorable moments of adult sensuality.
Even before “The Nutcracker” begins, you can feel its magic creeping up on you. Entering Uihlein Hall, the stage greets you with a sparkling, embellished frame and the crowd in the seats, dressed to the nines for the occasion, buzzes with the impatience of young kids. In counterpoint to this, you can hear the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra tuning its instruments, just out of sight, a sound that gave me tingly holiday goosebumps.
The Milwaukee Ballet received a $1 million donation 15 years ago from The Joan, Jack and Victor Stein Foundation, a gift that has allowed the lavish creation of “The Nutcracker” to continue annually. Additionally, BMO Harris Bank announced its sponsorship this year, keeping ticket prices affordable as a holiday gift to Milwaukee.
And let me tell you, “The Nutcracker” is some production. Its cast is enormous, its set is beautiful (and full of surprises), and its costumes are impressive not only in their design, but in sheer amount. If you let your mind consider the logistics involved in this performance, you’ll tumble down a rabbit hole.
Instead, be in the now. After a brief glimpse of Drosselmeyer’s workshop, where he and his nephew, Karl, put finishing touches on an ornate nutcracker doll for Clara Tennenbaum, “The Nutcracker” moves to a scene of choreographed chaos—one of many logistical feats in this production—featuring at least 35 people moving about the Tannenbaum family drawing room for a Christmas party.
It takes perhaps 10 minutes for any “dancing” to begin, as the Tannenbaums (Dad, Mom, Marie, Clara and Fritz) and their guests wander about the stage, exchanging kisses and gifts and animated conversation. Of course, every movement has that dance-like fluidity, with the women’s gowns expanding and sweeping the air, and the cast’s formations shifting seamlessly.
Drosselmeyer (Isaac Sharratt) stands out from the first, moving with Wonka-esque flourishes and using a snap of the fingers to bring all attention his way. Upon his arrival at the Tannenbaum home, the energy level rises ten-fold, sending the children into a tizzy with the anticipation of his magic tricks.
As the story moves from reality to fantasy toward the end of act one and into act two, we get a full serving of the creative and technical capabilities of the Milwaukee Ballet and its dancers. Bright pops of light and a turbulent, spinning set change usher in the famed Rat King (Justin Genna), with Dosselmeyer and the now-life-sized Nutcracker (Ferreira) cleverly warding off his minions to move the children safely along to the Land of Toys and Sweets.
Once here, The Nutcracker becomes a showcase of dancing guests, each flashing a unique brand of energy. Behind a transparent curtain at the start of act two, a children’s cast of angels performs an adorably unsynchronized piece, accompanied by the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The combination of voices rising from below the stage and a slightly fuzzy view of the angels made for a very warm and Christmas-y moment.
And goodness, Tchaikovsky’s score. The second act is where those familiar tunes drive the dancers’ steps, perfectly accompanying the choreographed fantasia. Personally, I could listen to “Waltz of the Flowers” forever, but “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” “Chinese Dance,” and “Russian Dance” were equally thrilling to hear live. And beautifully performed by the orchestra.
Among the more impressive moments was the “Arabian Dance,” performed by Mayara Pineiro and Timothy O’Donnell. In a production geared toward a young audience, it was nice to get a bit of sensuality. Pineiro received a well-deserved full-crowd murmur as she arched her leg behind her to meet her toes to her head or writhed her torso, belly dancer-style. It was a refreshing dose of adulthood.
The clear crowd favorite was a trio of goslings, who waddled behind a ballerina during the beloved “Danish Marzipan Sheperdesses,” squawking intermittently for comic relief. The Jacks also received a gold star, bringing a break-dancing energy to the stage as they achieved Olympic-style high jumping and corralled Fritz into their antics.
The performance of the night came from Marie and Karl, (Hidalgo and Ferreira), who appear after the shenanigans, all done-up for their Big Moment. The thing about good dancers is that they make it look easy. Ferreira performed an amazing number of lifts, one after the other, all effortlessly blended into the dance. At times, you could hear audience members gasp.
If you want a slightly unimaginative Christmas event, go ahead and see Frozen 3D. But I’m telling you that “The Nutcracker” is right here waiting, full of magic and art and a special kind of entertainment that can only come from a live, soaring Tchaikovsky score and the fiery pyrotechnics of brilliant dancers.