As the hierarchy of holiday parties goes, lame, awkward office get-togethers are at the bottom, and grand, festive gatherings at the Stahlbaums’ house are at the top. What’s not to like about a party where the music’s merry, the plum pudding’s amazing and every kid who comes gets a present?
The Stahlbaums’ celebration is an annual tradition at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, but each holiday season, a different visiting ballet company puts on its “Nutcracker.” Some party scenes look a bit more fun than others, and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet evokes invitation envy like no other company, thanks to great acting, staging and lively dancing. Wednesday night, Washington was welcomed to a Victorian parlor in the Windy City, where more bubbly flows every time Mayor Stahlbaum claps his hands. The Joffrey last came at Christmas in 2008, and it seems the tallest guy onstage keeps getting reelected mayor. Fabrice Calmels is an imposing 6-foot-6, and he commands the crowd both at the mayor’s mansion and in the Opera House. With one flourish from his elevated arm, the party guests part and gather round to light the tree. He’s the host who’s got everything (and everyone) under his thumb. Everyone that is, except for his onstage son, Fritz.
In this version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic (conceived by company founder Robert Joffrey, after a version performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) the Stahlbaum kids are played by adult company dancers of shorter stature. There’s great character acting throughout the party scene, but particularly by members of the Stahlbaum family. When Fritz (John Mark Giragosian) goes galloping by on a hobbyhorse, leading a herd of young boys who run over spinster aunts and nearly topple a sparkly cake, Mrs. Stahlbaum (Kara Zimmerman) shakes her head and gestures to Calmels as if to say, “He’s your son, dear,” and she doesn’t care one iota if the neighbors hear her say it.
The guests, we imagine, are a well-heeled mix of friends, relatives and political allies who will likely all leave thinking that the mayor is a great guy but what a shame about that kid. (One particular priceless moment finds all the adults dancing, and Giragosian hovering above them on the stairway, blasting his new trumpet like he’s Louis Armstrong.) Oh, and that Mrs. Stahlbaum’s brother with the cape and the eye patch is a little odd.
Dr. Drosselmeyer (Matthew Adamczyk) has once again shown up with his goofy magic tricks and wind-up toys. Calmels roll his eyes when Adamczyk rolls out a giant cabbage, and out of it steps a Columbine doll. The guests get into the spirit of things, though, and as the dolls lurch across the stage, the other dancers surround them, mimicking their robotic gestures.
Perhaps by this point they’ve had too much champagne. After one last grand dance that has even grandma and grandpa getting down, the clock chimes and it’s time for the guests to go. Calmels and Zimmerman attempt (in vain) to put Fritz and Clara (Anastacia Holden) to bed. As those familiar with E.T.A. Hoffman’s story know, as soon as all is quiet in the Stahlbaum house, the mice creep out to sniff for crumbs. The ensuing rats vs. toy soldiers fight is a bit ho-hum, but the closing “snow” scene keeps the company’s Act 1 among the best.
The Victorian scenery is lifted off the stage (albeit with some opening-night giant-Christmas tree glitches) and Clara finds herself in an enchanted world of white. Most companies close out the opening half of “The Nutcracker” with a frothy ensemble tutu scene. The Joffrey sticks to its family ties theme and sends Calmels and Zimmerman back out to dance a pas de duex as the Snow King and Queen. Unfortunately the fog machine clicked into overdrive, obscuring the dancers’ feet, and the pair appeared a bit shaky. Giragosian was very much on, however, and he turned like a top, nailing both his hopping pirouettes and slower, precisely controlled turns.
As charming as he appeared, Clara must not have wanted her pesky brother around, because her parents and Fritz are absent from her dream in Act II. As divertissements go, this parade of sweets was less enticing. American Ballet Theatre’s new production, seen at the Kennedy Center in 2011, set a new high standard for cheeky Act II fun that the Joffrey’s 25-year-old production can’t top. The Russian “nougats” leap haphazardly and not very high, while the Chinese “tea” dancers are irrepressibly goofy. Arabian “coffee” did give audiences a chance to appreciate Calmels’s toned body sans waistcoat and cravat; unfortunately, the pearls of his costume kept getting caught in the scarf wielded by his partner, Mahallia Ward, and the choreography was more showy than sexy.
The global tour of silliness was all just a prelude to a pretty grand pas de deux for an excellent Sugar Plum Fairy. April Daly drew opening-night duty, and she executed her tricky variations with cold, spot-on attack and a warm, sweet smile. Her princely partner, Dylan Gutierrez, turned her with such precision that each revolution was in time with the excellent Opera House Orchestra, directed by Scott Speck. If Daly and Gutierrez didn’t quite go for broke, it was because the waltzing flowers who preceded them onstage strewed petals everywhere. Pretty, yes. Practical, no.
The same can be said for much holiday frivolity. The Joffrey returns to Chicago next week to fine-tune “The Nutcracker” for its own hometown run. In Washington, we can hope the ballet is a premonition of great performances — and parties — to come.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
continues at the Kennedy Center
through Sunday with varied casting.