Joffrey’s ‘American’ Nutcracker Still Sparkles After A Quarter Century


Photo by Herbert Migdoll

Photo by Herbert Migdoll

December 2, 2012
PlayhouseSquare Center – State Theater
Cleveland, OH

By Steve Sucato

In the 25-years since Robert Joffrey created his ‘American’ Nutcracker ballet, it has become one of the most popular touring productions of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic holiday tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

For his version of the ballet conceived from a 1940 production by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and set to the original Tchaikovsky score, Joffrey sought to Americanize the production by setting the story in a 19th century American home instead in European one. He also infused its look with toys and things he remembered from his childhood growing up in Seattle, Washington.

For the Joffrey Ballet’s performances of the production as part of their 25th Anniversary tour of the ballet at PlayhouseSquare Center’s State Theater in Cleveland, the company joined forces with The Cleveland Orchestra and Children’s Choir conducted by Tito Munoz.

The fairly traditional production began as most versions of the ballet do with guests arriving for a Christmas party at the home of the wealthy Mayor Stahlbaum and his family.

In an opulent Victorian parlor setting created by designer Oliver Smith for Joffrey’s original 1987 production, guests congregated to greet one another and the Stahlbaum family, children scampered off to find mischief as house staff tended to everyone’s needs in a densely populated scene bustling with activity.

The children’s roles in ballet were danced by students from Cleveland area dance schools except for the two main children’s roles Clara and Fritz Stahlbaum which were danced by Joffrey company members Caitlin Meighan and Aaron Rogers requiring an even bigger suspension of reality than normal by the audience as the two dancers towered over their supposed peers.

The arrival of Clara and Fritz’s godfather Dr. Drosselmeyer (Jack Thorpe-Baker) came with dramatic flair when his tossed luggage satchel hit the floor and everyone in the scene briefly froze in place as if the mysterious man had the power to suspend time.

Costumed in the character’s familiar tuxedo and eye-patch, the statuesque Thorpe-Baker had the air of an early 20th century movie star with his every movement bearing a flourish.

The rest of the party scene played out as most do with the party guests cavorting and engaging in simple but lively court dances, Drosselmeyer presenting them with performances by life-size dancing dolls, gifts being handed out, and Fritz orchestrating a bit of mayhem with the other party boys and tormenting Clara when she is given a nutcracker doll by Drosselmeyer.

Joffrey’s choreography struck a nice balance between focusing one’s attention on the main action in the scene and allowing the audience to take in the detailed action around it such as comings and goings of the guests and house staff including a drunken butler and a couple involved in a spat.

As the party scene concluded the ballet shifted to the fantastical as children costumed as mice poured onto the stage out of the parlor’s fireplace causing the now alone Clara to take refuge on a couch hidden under a blanket. With Drosselmeyer looking on, the parlor quickly gave way to a magical battlefield as a mouse army and a toy soldier army advanced on one another in pyrotechnic-infused cartoonish battle that ended with Clara’s now full-size nutcracker doll turned into a prince (Mauro Villanueva) slaying the mouse king (Michael Smith) whose campy death left some in the audience chuckling.

Then the ballet’s first act concluded with “The Land of Snow” scene where Clara was transformed into a princess, her parents into the Snow King and Queen and brother Fritz into the Snow Prince.

Joffrey stars Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili were breathtaking as the Snow Queen and King in the frosty scene which featured some of the best dancing in the production including a marvelous “Waltz of the Snowflakes” dance choreographed by company co-founder Gerald Arpino.

Act two found Clara and the Nutcracker Prince aboard a giant hobby-horse accompanied by Drosselmeyer arriving in “The Kingdom of Sweets” where they were greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kara Zimmerman) and a host of dancers representing confectionery delights from around the world.

Unlike the ballet’s first Act in which the stage was often filled with dancers and an abundance of activity, Joffrey’s second act divertissements were rather low-key and often featured only a few dancers onstage at a time leaving the stage looking a bit empty.

Photo by Herbert Migdoll

Photo by Herbert Migdoll

Highlighting the divertissements were Jaiani and Suluashvili again this time in “Coffee from Arabia” where Jaiani showed off her incredible flexibility pulling one leg to the top of her head like an ice skater, “Nougats from Russia”, spotlighted by a high-flying Fabio Lo Giudice, and a rather unique “Mother Ginger” featuring a massive puppet created by Sesame Street puppet master Kermit Love.

Also of note in the act was the delightful “Waltz of the Flowers, A Victorian Bouquet” with choreography by Arpino. The dance, unlike in most productions, included some male dancers. Arpino’s exuberant choreography had in it pinwheel formations, flying flower pedals and a buoyancy that perfectly matched Tchaikovsky’s iconic music for the dance.

The ballet concluded with a graceful and technically sound if not slightly uninspired performance of the ballet’s “Grand pas de deux” by Zimmerman and Villanueva in which The Cleveland Orchestra’s impassioned playing outshined the dancing and Clara and Drosselmeyer a la The Wizard of Oz movie, climbing aboard a hot air balloon and waving goodbye to the “Land of Sweets” inhabitants.

Photo by Herbert Migdoll

Photo by Herbert Migdoll

While perhaps not as enchanting as other versions of The Nutcracker ballet out there, Robert Joffrey has created a magical and highly accessible production that is both traditional and fresh. Performed wonderfully by one of the world’s finest ballet companies and leading orchestras, it is easy to see why Joffrey’s The Nutcracker is a favorite of audiences of all ages.

Presented by The Cleveland Orchestra 

Copyright Steve Sucato

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