If you’re like me, this time of year can be a sore trial with all the forced holiday cheer. There’s so much pressure to be jolly and all of those obligatory holiday shows just strain your patience. You’re thinking, please, not another production of The Nutcracker! The good news is that you don’t have to suffer any more. You can re-discover your inner holiday mirth by going to see The Hard Nut with the Mark Morris Dance Group. From start to finish, this production is a triumph courtesy of Morris’ abundantly affectionate imagination. It is fun, campy and in your face with one deft touch after another. Briefly, the story is the same as the rest in the first act while the second act features the restoration of one of Hoffmann’s original tales from which The Nutcracker came. Long story short: I’ve never seen an audience enjoy another Nutcracker production as much as this one.

Aaron Loux (The Nutcracker) © Julieta Cervantes
Aaron Loux (The Nutcracker)
© Julieta Cervantes

Although we’re told that it’s set in the 1970s, the spectacular design of this production is more of a frenzied pastiche. Martin Pakledinaz’s delightfully garish costumes were a riot of color that dramatically contrasted with Adrianne Lobel’s black and white Art Deco inflected set. The dancers’ hairdos were very much the equal of the loud costumes. Beginning with the three Stahlbaum children contentiously gathered around a large console television, it was immediately clear that this was not your typical Nutcracker. Jenn Weddel delivered a spot on, eye-rolling disaffected teenage elder sister Louise, too anxious by half to join the adult world. June Omura’s bratty Fritz was annoying enough that you wanted to smack her. Lauren Grant’s Marie left something to be desired but was clearly well loved by the audience. They were overseen (loosely) by Kraig Patterson’s hilariously camp, flat out scene-stealing drag rendition of the Housekeeper. He did it so well and with such charm that you had to forgive his many excesses.

Lauren Grant (Marie) © Julieta Cervantes
Lauren Grant (Marie)
© Julieta Cervantes

The party scene developed with the entrance of one outrageous costume after another. Mark Morris and John Heginbotham were adorable as Mr and Mrs Stahlbaum with the edge going to Heginbotham who sensitively conveyed Mrs Stalhbaum’s secret dancing ambitions. This scene benefited greatly from the addition of Louise who stole unattended drinks, flirted shamelessly and generally stirred things up. Then there was the transformation, the room got large, and a marvelous war took place between the lady mice and the cowardly G.I. Joes. Yes, the G.I. Joes worked their way into this. The first soldier fired his gun… directly into his own foot. The Rat King was finally slain and then it was off to the races with the real dancing.

I confess, I tried desperately not to like the Snowflake dance. The men and women were in identical costumes consisting of a crop top and tutu. Completely silly. I wasn’t impressed with the headpieces that resembled a squirt of soft serve ice cream and tried to frown. The first handful of snow thrown by the first snowflake elicited an eye roll from me. Did they really think they could charm me this easily?! Around the fourth or fifth flung handful the right corner of my mouth began to curl upward. By the tenth flung handful I was hooked and by the end of the dance I joined the audience, cheering wildly. Morris’ secret is that whatever else he is doing, he never forgets the music and he never forgets that the most important thing is to express joy. It was corny, campy and silly, but this Snowflake dance was inexpressibly, fantastically exuberant.

The Snowflakes © Julieta Cervantes
The Snowflakes
© Julieta Cervantes

The story in Act II had Drosselmeyer telling feverish Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat who was made ugly by the Rat Queen and could only be redeemed by the young nephew of Drosselmeyer cracking a very hard nut with his teeth followed by taking seven steps backward. Don’t ask me to make sense of that – it’s a fairy tale so just roll with it. Young Drosselmeyer travelled the world, complete with a lighted map, in search of exotic variations to make the kiddies go ooh and ah. Only a churlish grump would complain about ethnic stereotyping when it’s this much fun.

The highlight of the second act was the Waltz of the Flowers. Once again, resistance was futile. Heginbotham in his secondary role as the Queen, finally got to dance as he led the flowers in another glorious romp. It veered wildly off into an homage to Busby Berkeley with the dancers rolling on the floor, making waves, and culminated in a hilarious, crowd-pleasing finale. Eventually the story found its way back to the Stahlbaum house where Louise and Fritz sat watching Marie and Young Drosselmeyer on the television. They were waving good bye and going off to happily ever after. The credits rolled and the show was over. Go see it and banish the holiday blues.

*****