The Other Nutcracker Character
Ballet’s special slant on The Nutcracker. And Who Killed Santa?
Few holiday productions can be considered as timeless as The Nutcracker. Performed everywhere from small rural studios to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the traditional ballet has become an annual winter spectacle and Tchaikovsky’s score the soundtrack to the Christmas season.
But even tradition can be improved. Michael Pink’s Nutcracker choreography for the Milwaukee Ballet includes a character not normally present in the production: Marie, the older sister of Clara and Fritz. Some companies change Clara’s name to Marie, but she is rarely seen as her own character. But in the Milwaukee Ballet’s version, it is Marie who dances the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux with the Nutcracker prince rather than Clara.
Valerie Harmon has been in every production of The Nutcracker since she joined the Milwaukee Ballet Company in 2008. This year marks her third time dancing the role of Marie. She feels the character gives the audience another storyline to follow instead of various nameless characters who would otherwise be performing her dances.
“It makes (the ballet) not just about steps,” Harmon says, “but about trying to pull the audience into your experience as this character rather than just making it about really exciting dancing.”
Harmon also bounces ideas off Annia Hidalgo and Nicole Teague, who play Marie in the show’s other two casts. Both have also danced the role before and like to share feedback about the rehearsals.
“No matter who you’re going to see or if you come three times, you can see three different interpretations,” Harmon says.
Building the stamina to stay in character for the entire show was a challenge for Harmon when she got the role. Though Marie is on stage for most of the first act, she needs to stay invested in the character. Every second on stage helps move the story forward. “If you let down (your guard) for a second, it’s just a little less magical,” she says.
The Nutcracker was one of the first ballets she saw as an aspiring dancer. Now that she’s part of the cast, she uses those memories to put herself in the audience’s place and remember how magical the experience is for those not onstage.
“When we’re on stage all the time, we forget because we don’t get to see the kids’ faces,” Harmon says. “But that’s what we’re trying to bring to people, all the magic and the beauty of it.”
Live music from the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra adds to that enchantment. Many companies now use recordings of the music.
“Sure, the tempo could be a little bit different every night but … there’s something about hearing the orchestra tune right beforehand as far as feeling ready for a show,” Harmon says, “getting excited about it, and making it an experience that’s really special.”
Opens 1:30 p.m. Dec. 13 and runs through Dec. 27 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $30 – $77 and are available online or by calling 414-902-2103.
Who Killed Santa?
What would Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy, Tiny Tim and Rudolph do if they got together for the holidays? Murder Santa, of course.
Returning for its sixth year, Neil Haven’s musical murder mystery Who Killed Santa? brings together the beloved holiday characters—in Muppet form—in a scenario the Hallmark Channel would find disgraceful. During an annual holiday party, their pent-up anger against Santa (Bo Johnson) is released, and one of them puts a candy cane through Santa’s heart. The audience ultimately chooses the culprit, determining which of the four endings the show will have that night.
As the writer and director, Haven has nothing against Ol’ Saint Nick or the Christmas season. He just couldn’t pass up the chance for satire.
“A Christmas show can get kind of schmaltzy and sentimental,” Haven says, “and it seemed right for some parodying.”
The show includes some of Haven’s spoof songs based on traditional Christmas tunes. Since the originals are generally autobiographical, it was easy to change the words to accommodate the show. It’s probably the only time you will hear Frosty the Snowman referred to as Frosty the Killer.
“We put all the references we can … to their cartoons,” Haven says. “The audience just eats that up.”
This year also brings the premier of “Neil’s Dirty Shorts,” a collection of short plays showing before or after weekend performances of Who Killed Santa? It has no connection to Santa or Christmas, but it gives audiences a chance to see the same cast in more productions from Haven. The irreverent sketches a la Saturday Night Live feature six absurd scenes from cannibalism to infuriating phone calls with a cable company.
Opens 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and runs through Dec. 31 at Soulstice Theatre. Tickets cost $25 and are available online.
A Concert of Note: A Program of Poetry, Prose & Song
The Boulevard Theatre and Plymouth Chorale have teamed up for a holiday collaboration celebrating literary genius. “A Concert of Note” features the works of writers Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost, with readings from local actress and director Beth Monhollen and Boulevard founder Mark Bucher. Plymouth Chorale will perform carols throughout and end the night with “Frostiana: Seven Country Songs,” a collection of Frost’s poetry set to music.
4 p.m. Dec. 13 and 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Plymouth Church, 2717 E. Hampshire. Tickets cost and are available online or by calling 414-744-5757.