It’s hard to avoid running into The Nutcracker during America’s year-end holiday festivities. From amateur productions featuring tiny, budding ballerinas and piped-in music to the kind of lavish, professional productions — all based on a fairy tale by the legendary German storyteller E. T. A. Hoffmann.
This season, Synetic Family Theater is jumping in by staging a Nutcracker that breaks all the rules—chief among them that the Nutcracker’s score is always Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Director Lilia Slavova has created a new show at the Crystal City Theatre that turns the focus toward E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original tale while eliminating all of Tchaikovsky’s music, save for the Russian dance which is employed as this show’s finale. The resulting confection will delight kids young and old. But keep in mind: it’s not the show that you may be expecting to see.
Tchaikovsky’s lengthy ballet simplified Hoffmann’s story by eliminating much of its darkness and complexity, creating instead a musical confection that allowed for an incredible variety of moods and dance numbers.
Slavova restores much of the original tale in her new version which relies more on acting, moody music, and Synetic’s patented athletic dancing to bring Hoffmann’s story across. In so doing, her nonstandard music selections—derived from classical composers such as Stravinsky, and spliced together by sound designers Irakli Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze—become background for the play creating an entirely different take on the material.
Synetic’s Nutcracker still relates the story of young Marie, a budding ballerina, who cherishes a toy nutcracker that’s been broken by her brother, Fritz, during her family’s holiday celebration. But by befriending the toy, Marie is drawn into an ancient curse invoked by the Evil Mouse King and Queen against a legion of toys led by the Nutcracker. Remaining loyal to the Nutcracker even under duress, Marie is rewarded for her steadfastness and her fondest wishes come true.
Slavova spices her show up considerably with an imaginative cast of puppets, cobbled together from Christmas packages strewn about the stage, to tell the story of the curse. And she cleverly deploys dance, slapstick humor, and colorful stagecraft at just the right intervals to keep the little ones from fidgeting. This, plus the company’s exuberant, leaping dance moves, kept the minds of even the smallest tykes in the game during Saturday morning’s performance of the show.
Synetic’s eight-person cast seamlessly plays all the primary and secondary roles in the show. Saturday morning, particularly notable performances were turned in by Irina Kavsadze (Marie); Mitch Irzinski (Dr. Stahlbaum, Marie’s father) Ryan Tumulty (the Mouse King, the toymaker and others); and Austin Johnson (Fritz). Dallas Tolentino added a brilliantly athletic dimension to the show as the heroic Nutcracker/Prince. And remaining cast members Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, Emily Whitworth, and Jessica Shearer Wilson round out the talented cast as members of Marie’s family.
A special hat tip goes to Austin Johnson whose manic Fritz kept the little boys in the audience focused and laughing uproariously—something you don’t often see at “real” Nutcrackers which highlight the romantic dreaming of young girls.
Synetic’s kinetic Nutcracker is that rare bird of a live theatrical production that really is fun for the whole family, something that’s genuinely tough to pull off in this electronics-obsessed age. Parents will appreciate the skill of the performers. Kids will enjoy the fun and the magic of the production as well as Fritz’ Bart Simpson-style antics. They’ll be awed as well by the huge piles of gigantic Christmas packages that take up row after row of seats in the Crystal City Theatre.
And everyone will get the chance to catch a rare glimpse inside the now relatively forgotten E. T. A. Hoffmann fairy tale that unwittingly got this long-running holiday tradition rolling to begin with.
Adapted and directed by Lilia Slavova
Choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili
Puppet design and construction by Eric Brooks and Daniel Mori
Costumes by Evgenia Luzhina-Salazar
Sound design by Irakli Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze
Produced by Synetic Family Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick