By Steve Sucato
News Contributing Reviewer
One of Western New York’s oldest productions of “The Nutcracker,” Greater Niagara Ballet Company’s 36th annual version of the ballet, filled the stage of the Performing Arts Center at Niagara Falls High School on Saturday afternoon, mixing “Nutcracker” tradition with a very kid-friendly slant.
Choreographed by ballet company founder and artistic director Beverley Feder and danced to a recording of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s score, the community production held few surprises as “Nutcracker” productions go. The familiar story began with a festive Christmas party at the home of the affluent Silberhaus family, with a multitude of guests arriving to dance and be merry.
Feder’s choreography for the scene, as with the rest of the production, was fairly simple and academic but in keeping with the skill level of the mostly volunteer and student cast.
Led by dancer Grace Barner as the ballet’s lead character Clara, and brother Fritz, danced by T.J. Cronkwright, a large group of children at the party performed several group dances that circled, hopped and intertwined.
The scene could have used better spacing. For most of it, an overstuffed stage of assembled party guests looked as if they had gathered for a group photo at the rear of the stage.
Things got more interesting, however, when the towering figure of Uncle Drosselmier (Paul Thomas) appeared. The magician-like character produced dolls and toys for the party children, including four life-sized mechanical dolls that danced and a wooden Nutcracker for Clara. Also of note in the scene was the endearing performance of 93-year-old John Capella, reprising his role as the maid-chasing Grandfather.
At party’s end, Clara and her Nutcracker doll were visited by the Mouse King (Alex Siegling) and a band of dancing mice that mildly terrorized her, leading into a battle scene in which her Nutcracker doll was transformed into a real-life Nutcracker Prince, danced by veteran performer Irek Muchalski.
The first act ended with its best dancing sequence in the “Land of Snow,” in which Muchalski partnered a lovely Snow Queen (Molly Vine), surrounded by a corps de ballet of eight Snowflakes in all white that performed with buoyant spirit.
The ballet’s second act opened in the “Kingdom of Sweet,” where a pair of jesters (Colin Akin and Brienna Sitzman) cartwheeled and tumbled about the stage to announce Clara’s arrival by sleigh to the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced by Configuration Dance Theatre member Mary Schnepf, and her entourage of dancers from various countries gathered to dance for Clara.
Highlighting those performances for Clara were Serena Feltrin as a sensuous harem girl in “Arabian,” a bubbly “Chinese” dance, a folksy “Russian” dance and a graceful and flowing “Waltz of the Flower” dance led by a wonderful performance by Dew Drop Fairy Grace Gruarin that oddly appeared in the middle of the ballet’s climactic Grand Pas de Deux.
In a production light on star power, Schnepf and her elegant partner, Carolina Ballet’s Manual Barriga, performed the Grand Pas de Deux decently.
The Greater Niagara Ballet Company’s “Nutcracker” was perhaps not the best choreographed, produced or danced, but it did contain plenty of heart, as was evidenced by its performers’ genuine giving of themselves onstage.