Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA; December 20, 2014
If the throngs queued up outside the Paramount Theatre to see Oakland Ballet’s “Nutcracker” are any indication, rumors of ballet’s imminent demise are greatly exaggerated. Ahead of the December 20 matinee that opened the three-performance run and the company’s fiftieth-anniversary season, hundreds of children wearing tiaras, Snow White costumes and other fancy-occasion duds tried to escape their parents’ grips and dance on the sidewalk. The curtain couldn’t rise soon enough for them.Some of those children will see “The Nutcracker” once and never see another ballet. For others, the performance will serve as the gateway to a lifelong addiction to ballet. OBC artistic director Graham Lustig is hip to this essential truth, and he savvily designed his “Nutcracker” to amuse the former and enchant the latter. Originally created for American Repertory Ballet in 2000, when he was that company’s artistic director, his “Nutcracker” has been in OBC’s repertory since he took the helm in 2010.
Opting for the girl-on-the-brink-of-womanhood angle, Lustig sets the Christmas Eve party in a private home in fin-de-siècle Vienna, where a teenage Marie (Ramona Kelley) alternates between playing with the other children and admiring the courtship dances of Cousin Vera (Megan Terry) and her cadet suitor (Justin Genna). With her clear acting and clean technique, Kelley projected Marie’s curiosity and longing for romance as she shadows the older couple’s movements; she gets her own first taste of romance in a tender pas de deux with a gentlemanly Nutcracker Prince (Gregory DeSantis). Lustig keeps the story moving by changing the focus frequently, from showing ice skaters and snowball fights through the living-room windows to interspersing brief formal-dance sequences with children’s mischief.
Another welcome diversion is a “Nutcracker” story time: Uncle Drosselmeyer (Connolly Strombeck) read aloud from the book while naughty brother Fritz (Stephen DiBiase) pantomimed a swordfight with the Rat King in a floor-to-ceiling shadow play, a simple yet dramatic visual effect. The actual mouse vs. toy soldier battle was hampered by blinding theatrical smoke and the Rat King’s (Michael Galloway) cumbersome robe, which tripped Galloway at least once during his otherwise menacing performance.
Lustig’s most endearing innovation is the Snowballs, who bound in from the wings to accompany eight shimmering snow maidens in the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Barely able to waltz in their fluffy, puffy fur-ball costumes, these ten student dancers sent children into fits of giggles and melted every grownup heart in the house.
The second act unfolds outside the walls of the Confiturembourg, a gingerbread castle with whipped-cream turrets, peppermint water wheels and boatloads of glitter. Jackie McConnell delivered a sinuous Arabian dance, assisted by Taurean Green. Angela Bevevino, Colleen Soltys and Matthew Roberts danced a lovely German pas de trois. Terry returned as the Sugar Plum Fairy, displaying charm as well as refined strength in arabesques and zippy fouettés; Genna reappeared as her attentive cavalier. As the saucy Tiny Clown, little Alexandra Ajose-Nixon upstaged them all with her go-for-broke stage presence.
Whimsical details by costume and set designer Zack Brown, whose credits include work for the Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theatre and Broadway, contribute greatly to the production’s warmth. Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony in an up-tempo rendering of Tchaikovsky’s score, and the Mt. Eden High School Women’s Chamber Ensemble provided choral accompaniment.