It’s not hard to say why Mark Morris’ rendering of the holiday Nutcracker classic is better than all the rest. In contrast to other productions I’ve seen, Mark Morris has created a party scene for the first act which is unrivaled. The fun comes from the richly inhabited characters. All of them are so alive and they each have an agenda. Beginning with the three Stahlbaum siblings, June Omura’s bratty little Fritz never stops being a delicious pest. Lesley Garrison’s Louise is the perfect embodiment of an eye-rolling teenaged girl who’s in entirely too big a hurry to join the gown up world, sneaking drinks and flirting shamelessly. Lauren Grant, who is in her twentieth year as Marie, takes off on the adventure of a lifetime with her wide, innocent eyes. Brandon Randolph plays the drag part of the maid this year. Camp aside, he is the only real grown-up in the production and he keeps everyone in line, sort of. Then there’s Morris who is delightful in the role of daffy Dr. Stahlbaum and John Heginbotham who is deeply poignant as Mrs. Stahlbaum. As the rest of the party guests arrive, they quickly begin having their own, very real party. They get into mischief, drink too much, flirt, dance dirty, and are frankly a little bit shameful. They’re having so much fun that it’s gotten a little carried away.
There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to know where to look. You get the sense that they’ve put an incredible amount of time into figuring out what their characters are going to get up to and they never stop being themselves for an instant. You could see every performance of the party scene and probably still not see it all. It’s captivating, energizing, intoxicating. If you want more than this, there’s something wrong with you.
But you get so much more. The first soldier on stage for the war between the G.I. Joes and the rats shoots himself in the foot. Their naked cowardice is hilarious as they mostly run away from the rats. The Snow Scene is also the best of all the ones I’ve seen. Both the men and the women wear darling little tutus with crop tops and improbable little soft serve ice cream-shaped headdresses. They look silly at first but then they throw little handfuls of snow in the air. Each dancer comes out, dances across the stage and throws more snow, and more, until it’s an effervescently joyous event. It embodies all the happiness you can remember of spinning around in circles as a child. The second act carries the story of The Hard Nut as related to Marie by Drosselmeyer. The Rat Queen has turned Princess Pirlipat ugly and it can only be undone by Drosselmeyer finding the Hard Nut which must then be cracked by a young man’s teeth followed by him taking seven backward steps. Drosselmeyer travels the world to find the nut which is then cracked by his nephew, Young Drosselmeyer, who is spurned by Pirlipat when her beauty is restored. Marie steps in and offers her love to the young man and they live happily ever after. There are two great pas de deux in the second act. The first is with Drosselmeyer and his nephew and the second is with Marie and Young Drosselmeyer. Both of these duets are about love; in the first case it’s parental love and in the second, it’s romantic love. Morris invests each of the dances with a depth of feeling that is largely absent from traditional productions and that’s what makes this one special.
I don’t think that there will ever be another Nutcracker that takes the place of Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut in my heart. His ability to capture Tchaikovsky’s soaring melodies in his choreography is part of that joy. He places the music at the center of everything and makes you want to jump out of your seat and join in. It contains so much warmth and humanity along with the madcap silliness that it’s inescapably life affirming and all you want is more. If you’re only going to one holiday show, this is the one you want.
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