Washington Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ is, once again, plenty sweet
By Sarah Kaufman
Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011
It's that "Nutcracker" time of year again, time to welcome back our adorable little friends Fox, Squirrel, Deer, Frog and let's see . . . oh yes, that valiant contingent of Valley Forge Bunnies that help beat back the rodent riffraff.
There are also Big Butterflies and Little Butterflies, and Mushrooms and . . . you get the idea. Especially if you've seen the Washington Ballet's urban-forest production, which opened Thursday at the Warner Theatre and runs through Dec. 24.
This version of the holiday classic, a fantasy entwining of Georgetown society, American history and woodland critters, has an exceptionally high Q rating - as in cuuute. Be prepared to fully flex your aww muscles, as furry animals and moppets in floppy costumes proliferate throughout the ballet, choreographed by Artistic Director Septime Webre.
And why shouldn't they? Cute and spunky are not only perfectly suitable "Nutcracker" characteristics - they are also Washington Ballet strengths. Take Maki Onuki's Sugar Plum Fairy, a petite dynamo with titanium technique - so light and quick - and a sparkling disposition. Jonathan Jordan was her sterling cavalier; I vote that he be promoted to prince. Jared Nelson's Snow King could melt hearts with his sweet attention to Kara Cooper's Snow Queen.
Brooklyn Mack's Frontiersman vaulted nearly to the rafters, drawing cheers every time. Threw in a no-hands cartwheel as an afterthought. Perhaps he's still leaping as I write.
He is but one of the marvels in the sprawling floor show that is the second act - which takes place on the banks of the Potomac, just a whiff away from blooming cherry blossom trees. (Clara, the ballet's heroine, has a heart for the environment in this production; in her dream, she conjures up springtime flora and fauna rather than the traditional land of bonbons.) Here you'll also find Anacostia Indians, cardinals and a passel of to-die-for mini-clowns. New this year, the Spanish dancers are all men - ole.
Webre, addressing the audience from the stage before the curtain rose, said that this season marks the 50th anniversary of the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," though not of this particular production, which premiered in 2004. Company founder Mary Day unveiled her more traditional treatment of the ballet in December 1961 at Constitution Hall, with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Speaking of orchestras, Webre also extended an exuberant welcome to the musicians assembled in the Warner Theatre's pit. For the past two years, the Washington Ballet had interrupted its history of live Tchaikovsky for its "Nutcrackers" and had been using a taped score. Financial troubles lay behind the choice to forgo live musicians, but with a recent donation by philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, an orchestra, conducted Thursday by David Commanday, was once more producing a charming version of the beloved score.
As a smallish ensemble, the orchestra produced a wonderfully clear sound, if not the most full-bodied. But it was nevertheless a tremendous improvement over canned sound. There was a deeply stirring intimacy in the first act, especially, that felt quite appropriate for the genteel family gathering in the ballroom of Clara's tony mansion. It's wonderful that violinists, cellists, a harpist and all the rest are back to being part of that family, too.