Sunday, December 2, 2012

Arsht Center: The Nutcracker (reviews)

The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts brought in the House Theatre of Chicago to stage their imaginative production of The Nutcracker.  It opened in the Carnival Studio Theater on November 29, 2012.
Set in the present day, The House's fantastical expansion of this holiday classic is not a ballet, but rather a play—unstintingly affirmative and emotional—about one loving family’s recovery from a terrible and surprising loss. Based on the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the play centers on young Clara's journey to save Christmas and bring her broken family back together—making this production a splendidly empowering Christmas story and a wholly different take on the classic tale! This contemporary holiday theater piece weaves together riveting dialogue, astonishing puppetry, original songs and spellbinding spectacle to tell a heartwarming, darkly moving story of magic and hope.
Tommy Rapley directed a cast that included John Wilson, Joe Steakly, Renata Eastlick, Mary Sansone, Josh Oder, Joey Stone, Sarah Bockel, Zeke Sulkes,

Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
...leave it to the House Theatre of Chicago to come up with a quirky twist on The Nutcracker co-produced with the Adrienne Arsht Center. Yes, there is a cheery celebration with freshly-baked cookies offered to the audience and a lovable teddy bear come to life. But it also turns on a son killed in a Middle Eastern battlefront, a terrifying vision of giant flesh-eating rats and a Dr. Phil moral about facing your innermost fears. You know: a family show for a dysfunctional 21st Century family.
The problem is this Nutcracker seems like two separate shows badly grafted onto each other. Intermittently, half the evening is a very-well executed children’s show with wild chases, simplistic songs and funny costumes. The other is aimed at adults with such sober aspects as parents unable to deal with their son’s death, and sly humor like one rodent telling another, “I’d like to kiss you on your boca raton.” In scores of similar events, this results in a something-for-everyone smorgasbord that satisfies everyone. But here, the children’s material is too simplistic to charm the adults unless they have a child in tow, and the adult material baffles children. Some audience members will be thoroughly enchanted, but others will struggle to reconcile the two halves of the evening.
Director Tommy Rapley, being a choreographer as well, moves the cast inside an intimate theater-in-the-round in a dizzying swirl of almost perpetual motion... acknowledge that Rapley isn’t afraid to stage moments without dialogue, showing relationships just by the way people look at each other or stand in relation to each other.
The cast, a hybrid of local actors and House regulars, is unfailing enthusiastic as they dive deep into two and three roles. You have to love how they regularly steal a few moments to play with a child in the stands or shoot off an impromptu comment out of character to the adults. Eastlick (so sensuous in GableStage’s Ruined) and the House’s Josh Odor seamlessly switch gears between playing jovial rats wearing red-tinted Elton John glasses and sporting a British accent in one scene, then seconds later with a costume change, becoming the emotionally stunted, grieving parents.

But the spotlight belongs to Sansone, the standout in this season’s A Shayna Maidel at Broward Stage Door... She creates a young girl who is painfully aware of the cold reality of her parents’ isolation and yet open to the possibility of dolls that can come to life and talk.
Caveat parents: Children of seven or older will find the production enthralling as they would most children’s theater. But younger patrons are likely to be badly spooked, even terrified if they’ve never been to theater before and unable to realize it’s all in fun. Heck, those huge rats with glowing red eyes unnerved me.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, which Miami City Ballet will perform at the Broward Center Dec. 14-16 and on the Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House stage Dec. 20-24 is a period piece, a sumptuous visual feast danced to that oh-so-familiar Tchaikovsky score. The House Nutcracker, presented in the cozy Carnival Studio Theater, is an edgier contemporary play-with-music. Staged by Tommy Rapley, it mixes fantasy, double-entendre humor and, heads up for parents, a few truly scary moments that can make it upsetting for some little ones.

With a script by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, music by Kevin O’Donnell and lyrics by Minton, the theatrical Nutcracker focuses on a family whose joyous Christmas celebration is shattered by tragedy.
Accompanied by six musicians (including composer O’Donnell), the cast of Chicago and Miami actors delivers the show’s eclectic songs well, the loveliest being a soothing one sung by Fritz to his little sis.

Collette Pollard’s nostalgic in-the-round scenic design places the audience inside the family’s home, with no one far from the action – great in terms of emotional intimacy, not so hot when giant rat-head puppets with glowing red eyes and dagger-like teeth finally appear. Costume designer Debbie Baer contributes colorful, fanciful getups for the toys and stylishly quirky outfits for the humans and rats (love the two-toned shoes on the rat trio). Lee Keenan’s lighting design amplifies the play’s scariest moments, as do the rat squeaks supplied by sound designer Michael Griggs.

Director Rapley seamlessly blends his cast of Chicago and Miami actors. The waif-like Sansone, a Barry University grad, is throughly credible as a plucky young girl. New World School of the Arts alumna Eastlick brings an anchoring presence to Martha and a vivacious playfulness to her rat character, while both Odor and Wilson shine brighter as her rodent cohorts than they do as David and Drosselmeyer. Stone is a sharp, amusing, comforting Fritz. Bockel is cute as afraid-of-the-dark Phoebe, Steakley funny as the lightbulb-topped Hugo and Sulkes a goofy French-accented Monkey, who tells Eastlick’s rat that he wants to smooch her on her “ boca ratón.”
Roger Martin reviewed for miamiartzine:
When House performed The Sparrow at the Arsht last year it was certainly a magical theatrical experience and this could be said even more so for their Death and Harry Houdini, presented earlier this year. Sure, The Nutcracker talks about magic a lot and Clara's toys do come to life and giant red-eyed rats rampage madly around the stage, and it all ends relatively happily, but missing is the magical imagination of The House Theatre of Chicago seen here previously.
It's not all strife and tears, however. There's singing and dancing and comedy and sugar plum cookies. The actors interact well with the young children in the audience, bringing laughter and reassurance that all is not as scary as seems.
Perhaps my cynical old eyes don't see what a child sees (and those children in the audience were undoubtedly enraptured), but I couldn't get past the feeling that this was a second tier road show. Oh, well, two out of three ain't bad.
The Arsht Center presents the House Theatre production of The Nutcracker through December 30, 2012.

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