NUTCRACKER (NOT SO) SUITE
Based on the ballet by Tchaikovsky and the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann
Featuring Deanna Gooding, Kelly Vittetoe, Jordan Lefton, Stephanie Fellner, and Kevin McCormick
Conceived, Directed, and Choreographed by Myron Johnson
Presented by James Sewell Ballet
At The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts
I know the expression “Christmas Miracle” gets tossed around a lot, but a genuine miracle is taking place at The Cowles Center right now; because after years of trying to find a holiday show to call their own, they finally have hit paydirt with James Sewell Ballet’s glamorous revival of Nutcracker (Not So) Suite. Even better, this is a double miracle as it heralds the return of Myron Johnson, the iconic director and choreographer and impresario of the late, lamented Ballet of the Dolls. But this is far from sympathy praise. Thanks to some fantastic performances across the board from the company (including two iconic performers returning to the work in their signature roles), buckets of camp and glamour anchored by some dark underpinnings, and Johnson’s ruthless re-examination of his most iconic work, this is the dance equivalent of unwrapping a bottle of wine to realize that you’ve been gifted a bottle of ‘98 Dom Perignon.
Using not just the famous ballet by Tchaikovsky but E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) as his starting point, Mr. Johnson resets the story to New York’s Upper East Side in 1963, where young Marie (Deanna Gooding) and her dolls live in a penthouse apartment with her maid (Mary Jo Peloquin) and her glamorous mother Flo (Kevin McCormick). On Christmas Eve, Flo has a party filled with her socialite friends, including Marie’s mysterious Uncle (Mr. Johnson himself, in his signature cameo role) and his nephew (Jordan Lefton) who she develops a crush on. Marie gets a Barbie doll for Christmas (Kelly Vittetoe) which she loves, till her Uncle gives her a Ken doll (Mr. Lefton). After her mother makes a drunken fool of herself, Marie runs away, but is accosted by a bunch of lowlifes and the Rat Quee… I mean, the Beat Queen (Stephanie Fellner) and her squad, who kidnap Ken. Can Marie and Barbie save their man? Can Marie’s Uncle find her in time? And will true love conquer all?
There’s a word that often gets bandied about with Mr. Johnson’s work, and that word is “camp.” And while that is part of his arsenal, there’s a lot more at play going on in his Nutcracker. While there is glamour and pop culture percolating on the edges (most notably in the soundtrack which veers wildly from lounge music to techno to Barbra Streisand to the soundtrack of The Wiz and more), Mr. Johnson uses these not as the end product but as a means to examine the implications of the story. And by using the original Hoffman tale with all of the dark elements in tact, Johnson takes the normal fantasia of this ballet and uses it to give Marie a real tale of love, heartbreak, and growth that causes her to gain some maturity in the end. It’s this grounded tale for Marie that anchors all of the glamor and camp and is that has made Mr. Johnson’s take on this material so revered. (I can imagine Susan Sontag having a field day with this piece.)
One of Mr. Johnson’s many gifts (aside from his signature choreographic style) is his ability to use simple staging elements and combine them to staggering effect. For example, in the blizzard sequence at the top of Act Two (which parallels the snowflake dance in the original ballet) to achieve the blizzard effect, all he did was drop a scrim, fill the stage with blue light and stage fog, and then bounced a disco ball off the scrim to make it look like the snow was falling. Simple components to be sure, but when combined with his choreography (which included a lovely group dance and a beautiful pas de trois for Ms. Gooding, Eve Schulte, and Chris Hannon) it was absolutely hypnotic. Even better it still managed to advance the plot; as through the blizzard we saw the Beat Queen leading Ken to her lair, Marie trying to find them through the blizzard, and Uncle trying to rescue Marie while all the dancing was going on.
This is also a truly handsome production. Steven Rydberg’s gorgeous set is absolute perfection; complete with a fantastic storefront for holiday shopping, Marie’s princess bed, and Flo’s swinging penthouse pad containing one piece of art that has been traditional for this production (and fans of this show will know exactly what I’m talking about; the second I saw it I knew that all was well). The costumes by Eve Schulte and Fritz Masten are exquisite, complete with Mr. Masten recreating Barbie’s signature black and white chevron swimsuit. Michael Murnane’s lighting is perfectly moody for this wintertime escapade.
As for the cast, I was genuinely concerned for them. When he created Ballet of the Dolls, Mr. Johnson assembled a company that was heavily inspired by the Ballet Russes in that not only was each dancer talented and technically proficient, but also a fascinating figure full of personality and charisma that made them compelling to watch on stage. Thankfully Mr. Sewell and his company rise to the challenge of Mr. Johnson’s tricky aesthetic and mostly succeeds. And kudos have to Mr. Johnson again for ruthlessly reexamining his approach to this piece and in working with the strengths of this particular cast, which resulted in not only performances that can stand with his original company’s work, but also in creating one of the most cohesive tellings of this tale I’ve seen in a long while.
Deanna Gooding is absolutely lovely as Marie, capturing the childish innocence of the character as she falls in love for the first time and providing the emotional anchor that this production needs to succeed. Kelly Vittetoe is a revelation as Barbie; not only managing to get all the physical comedy of the role down cold, but (and this is a testament to both her and Mr. Johnson) by keeping her on pointe for the entirety of her performance, she not only managed to mimic Barbie’s walking style and sell the physicality of the role, she also managed to create her own performance that was not completely beholden to former Dolls dancer Zhauna Franks (who created the role of Barbie). As for Mr. Lefton, while he was absolutely lovely as the shy Nephew flirting with Marie, his Ken didn’t really gel for me thanks to a few slips of the mask during some of Ken’s trickier moves. That said, his partnering work as both characters with all three of the leading ladies is fantastic.
Speaking of the third leading lady, Stephanie Fellner has returned to her signature role of the Rat Queen, and she completely owns the stage! Few dancers in town can handle Mr. Johnson’s blend of dance styles and high emotion as well as she can, and she commands the stage every time she is on it. So charismatic is she that your eye is instantly on her, whether it’s her startling entrance, dancing with her minions and Ken in her lair, or even slinking in the background of the party scene. For longtime fans of this production, it’s interesting to note that she’s traded some of the fierceness of her earlier interpretations for genuine menace (in a mysterioso entrance set to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”), which adds a stronger sense of danger to Marie’s quest, and my compliments go to both her and Mr. Johnson for thoroughly reexamining the role for maximum impact.
Ms. Fellner was not the only veteran of this production returning. The role of Flo, Marie’s erstwhile socialite mother, is one of the key components of Mr. Johnson’s vision for the show. And while there have been drag takes on the role (Stephen Herzog, better known as local drag queen Barbie Q), diva takes on the role (courtesy of actress Binky Wood), and takes that combine both (Russ King, Miss Richfield 1981 herself, has played the role before), Kevin McCormick’s iconic portrayal has been the benchmark for the role. A glamorous ghoul if there ever was one (Susan Hayward IS Joan Crawford AS Diana Vreeland!), Mr. McCormick brings heaps of style and sexiness to the role, and cuts a glamorous figure in Flo’s signature gowns. But the real genius of his work is that he is fearless in showing the darker side to Flo’s glamorous facade; a pill-popping narcissist who uses her daughter as an accessory and leaves most of the running of her and her daughter’s lives to her maid (in a hilarious silent cameo by Ms. Peloquin, the operations manager of the company). Mr. McCormick makes Flo glamorous, cruel, and pitiable (and does it all at once when Flo drunkenly “entertains” her guests!) and it’s this fearlessness of showing the not so glamorous underpinnings to Flo’s glamorous life that throws Marie’s kindness into higher relief. Make no mistake, Mr. McCormick finds every laugh in the role, but also finds all the other emotions as well.
When Myron Johnson put Ballet of the Dolls on hiatus, I was worried that we would lose one of the most unique choreographic voices in the Twin Cities. Thankfully his former student James Sewell has opened his doors of his company to take his former teacher in; with the result being the triumphant return of one of the most beloved dance pieces (and dance makers) in town. And thanks to sharp work by the company, this is one holiday tradition that we are so very lucky to have back!
James Sewell Ballet’s production of Nutcracker (Not So) Suite continues through Sunday, December 20 at The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis; with performances at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 pm on Sundays. Tickets range from $25-45 and can be purchased on the Cowles’ site.