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Review: ‘The Nutcracker’ loses its footing this season

Photo courtesy Houston Ballet

By Gina Matos     11/29/22 11:41pm

Upon entering the Wortham Center for the annual holiday show, there is an unmistakable anticipatory energy in the air, accompanying their signature Christmas tree and bubbly mingling between well-dressed patrons. “The Nutcracker” is undeniably a holiday favorite for audience members, but their excitement for the show may be misguided. Despite the show’s remarkable popularity, the Houston Ballet’s production falls short of the original’s charm.

For starters, Stanton Welch’s “The Nutcracker” makes diverging directing choices from its predecessors, perhaps hoping to give a new feel to the renowned fairytale. However, some of these  choices dampen the audience’s connection to the show and the characters’ connections to one another. For instance, the stage feels noticeably empty in various instances. In many “The Nutcracker” productions, a prominent aspect of the story’s staging relies on its onstage spectatorship, allowing the audience to inclusively experience the performance alongside the characters. In removing spectators from the stage, the audience becomes removed as well.

Additionally, the lack of Clara’s spectatorship onstage deadens the production’s second act. Clara disappears amid the performances in the Land of Sweets, causing the production to lose its purpose through lack of audience engagement. Because of the connection audience members create with Clara on her journey in “The Nutcracker,” it is crucial for audience interest to keep her on stage. Consequently, this directing choice creates a strong disconnect in the production. 

Further, some of the show’s choreography choices dilute the chemistry between characters — most importantly, the connection between Clara and the Nutcracker. At times, the choreography fails to provide room for chemistry-building between characters. At the Stahlbaum house, Clara’s and Drosselmeyer’s choreography fails to communicate Clara’s instantaneous captivation and chemistry with the Nutcracker doll. Clara’s signature move of hitting the Rat King with her pointe shoe is notably omitted and further contributes to Clara’s lack of engagement with the Nutcracker. Making these distinct choreography choices diminishes the story’s special chemistry between the two leads. 

However, the highlights of Welch’s reimagining of “The Nutcracker” shine within the production’s technical successes and individual talents. Many of Tim Goodchild’s costumes and scenic designs are bedazzling and magically fabricated with extremely elegant detail. The iconic, tree-growing scene is especially effective, as the dancers afterward look truly toy-size onstage. Particularly, one of the finest images in the show is the unmasked Nutcracker lying beneath the Christmas tree surrounded by falling snow.

Many of the show’s individual dancers also sparkle throughout the performance. Clara (Tyler Donatelli) glides and flutters with a simultaneously youthful and mature liveliness. Drosselmeyer’s dolls (Kellen Hornbuckle, Song Teng, Elivelton Tomazi, Ryan Williams) are extremely believable in their rigid, animated movements. The Flurries (Allison Miller, Danbi Kim, Jacquelyn Long, Bridget Kuhns) live up to the story’s trademark pine forest scene, gracefully twirling and leaping across the stage with agility and impressive athleticism. Of course, the dynamic duet between the Nutcracker (Chase O’Connell) and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Beckanne Sisk) is mesmerizing with its incredible technique and chemistry. The Arabian dancer (Yuriko Kajiya) and the Russian dancer (Yu Wakizuka), are surprising spotlights of the night, impressively in control of the demanding choreography. 

All in all, I recommend this production to first-time goers of “The Nutcracker” seeking a feel-good show. Otherwise, Nutcracker devotees like myself should expect a show that strays from the holiday classic. 

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