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Pink’s 'Nutcracker' at 10

The Magic of Community

Dec. 16, 2013
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milwaukee ballet company. photo mark frohna. (4)
This year’s production of Milwaukee Ballet’s annual treasure, The Nutcracker, is a resplendent display of holiday feeling and community mindedness. One look at the audience testifies to the intergenerational nature of this show. Now in its 40th year, the Ballet’s Nutcracker appeals to regulars and newcomers alike. The artists themselves are no less diverse, and rightly so, given the necessary quadruple casting and the mammoth scale of the production. The Milwaukee Ballet Company dancers, Milwaukee Ballet II (second company) dancers, more than 150 of the organization’s students, Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and Milwaukee Children’s Choir all contribute to the magic.

Production values are positively sumptuous in Artistic Director Michael Pink’s 10-year-old adaptation. Many of the costumes are heirlooms, meticulously preserved and refurbished each year. The overall look of the show is a realistic portrait of 19th-century German fashion. Only two tutus surface in the show—rather, the ladies are costumed almost exclusively in ornate, flowing gowns, and the gentlemen in tailcoats. Under Costume and Scenic Designer Zack Brown, this realistic baseline is offset by fantastical elements once the clock strikes midnight and the principal characters are whisked into the magical Land of Toys and Sweets. Of particular note are the frightening mouse and rat heads worn by members of the children’s cast, ensemble members and Isaac Sharratt as the Rat King (on the opening night performance). Most striking among the many fabulous set pieces were the fanciful carousel modules used in the beginning of the second act to introduce the ethnic couples whose divertissements grace the latter half of the story.

Tchaikovsky’s iconic, ubiquitous score is given new life under seasoned Music Director Andrews Sill and Conductor Pasquale Laurino. From the moment the overture begins, we are swept out of everyday reality and into a whimsical time passed. Harpist Ann Lobotzke delivers a particularly stirring passage during the Dance of the Flowers.

Pink’s choreography is superb both for its challenging steps (a single-handed lift at the end of the famous Snow Pas de Deux drew an audible chorus of “oohs” from the audience) and the space it leaves for the dancers to develop the characters themselves. As a veteran Nutcracker audience member points out, Pink’s latest casting brings members of the younger company to the fore, giving them a chance to develop their already considerable talents, and ensuring that the smaller roles will be very well cared for in the hands of the company’s leading artists.

In Pink’s adaptation, all three Tannenbaum children are transported out of reality by the toymaker Drosselmeyer and his nephew Karl. The ongoing comedy derived from Karl (Ryan Martin) and Marie’s (Nicole Teague) flirtation and Clara’s (Luz San Miguel) attempts to horn in for attention sparkles with the genuine playfulness of youth. The naughty younger brother, Fritz, a role long played by Ballet veteran Marc Petrocci, is well handled by the skilled Mengjun Chen. Timothy O’Donnell’s Drosselmeyer is a triumph. Reminiscent of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, O’Donnell wears a long purple coat and tosses glitter with intentionality that completely sells his magic.

Several minor characters also demand attention for their tremendous characterizations and athleticism. Susan Gartell’s Shepherdess doll is masterful—she moves with the stiff, clockwork gestures of a windup toy and stays perpetually on pointe. The Jack doll (Barry Molina) is similarly riveting in his tumbler-esque antics, particularly in his dance with Fritz and the other Jacks. The Snow Queen (Courtney Kramer) and her dancers bring playful, swooping energy to their marvelous act ender, evoking winter flurries with breathtaking accuracy. Finally, the Arabian couple (Annia Hidalgo and Davit Hovhannisyan) steal the second act with their sensuous, virtuosic contortions and lifts.

Above all else, this wonderful production is about inclusion. From principals, to ensemble, choir, orchestra and 6-year-old baby angels, every contributing artist helps make The Nutcracker a holiday gem.


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