Dreams come to life at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center every year when the Milwaukee Ballet is in the building each December. But the popular “Nutcracker” now looks dreamier than ever, as the company unveils an overhauled second act along with all-new sets and costumes — all of which are nothing short of spectacular.
It took seven years and $5 million to bring this new “Nutcracker” to life. Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director Michael Pink’s reimagining of classical ballet, last revamped a quarter-century ago, premiered Friday. And it’s safe to say that this “Nutcracker” was worth the wait.
Milwaukee Ballet’s “The Nutcracker: Drosselmeyer’s Imaginarium” runs through Dec. 26 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee.
Pink’s previous “Nutcracker,” which was retired last year, was worthy of its beloved status. But even die-hards must admit that ballet is worn out. The sets and costumes were starting to show their age. And in the ballet world, where “The Nutcrackers” was driving the box office sales needed for companies to survive, Milwaukee Ballet needed a change to keep up with the flashy, modern productions popping up all over the country. This goes on and then some; Well done, amazing.
The ballet opens in Drosselmeyer’s workshop. Inventor and magic creator – a role tempting enough for veteran dancer Davit Hovhannisyan to return to the stage just two months after his retirement – is preparing to give the Tannenbaum family a night of joy with his assistant Karl (danced by Parker Brasser-Vos on Saturday afternoon). The duo tosses all the necessary items into a Mary Poppins-style carpet bag, and Pink’s newly designed Kingdom of Sweets heralds the second act with ephemera from Drosselmeyer’s “Imaginarium.” Peeling back the back layers of the hand-painted set, the workshop blows up to reveal a bustling streetscape. This opens into a breathtaking Victorian conservatory, and one quickly realizes this isn’t the same Milwaukee Ballet “Nutcracker.”
Moving completely away from the trend for truncated productions that rely on projections to amplify the magic, a well-equipped design team built this “Nutcracker” the old-school way: traditional falls and frames, maximalist set pieces and lighting (from familiar faces Todd Edward Ivins and David Grill) – also 175 spectacular new costumes designed by Gregory Poplyk, whose design credits include New York City Ballet and HBO’s “The Guilded Age.”
But Milwaukee Ballet also knows its audience. It was neither practical, necessary, nor wise to abandon their “Nutcracker” altogether. So Pink kept the opening party scene almost entirely intact, despite the beautiful new decorations. Nor does it touch the essential parts of the libretto, which avoid some of the darker (and scarier) connotations of “The Nutcracker” and cleverly incorporate some of the shaky plot lines of this arguably silly ballet.
In this scenario, Clara (Daniela Maarraoui), Fritz (Marko Micov) and her older sister Marie (Alana Griffith) (the latter of whom is Karl’s love interest) fall asleep after an exciting family party and adventure to a magical land imagined by Drosselmeyer. On the way there, the living room becomes larger and the greenhouse ceiling blows off. The children interrupt the battle between toy soldiers and mice under the Christmas tree. A life-size dancing nutcracker prevails and turns out to be Karl, who has transformed from a rather nerdy guy into a real prince who dances magnificently. pas de deux With Marie. They get stuck in a blizzard – whipped up by the feverishly fast, staccato dances of Snow Queen Marie Harrison-Collins and her piles of sequins – then board a hot air balloon on their way to a candy-covered city.
The second act, Imaginarium, is where Pink leaves off much of his previous production (though devoted viewers will appreciate that the jacks remain in place). This glittering color bomb of a fairytale land borrows imagery from Oz, Whoville and Wonka’s chocolate factory; There’s a cityscape made of candy and a crowd of charming citizens carrying balloons to greet their special guests. Dancing lions, clowns and dolls, a roller-skating trumpeter and a bicycle-riding drag queen named Madame Bon Bon provide the entertainment; plus the newly crowned Marie is crowned the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Musical director Andrews Sill re-enacted snippets of Tchaikovsky’s scores as fashionable interludes as entrances and exits to the entertainments. While I’m not convinced this was necessary, it keeps the second act upbeat and lively between scenes. The full effect of these elements together is undeniably fascinating; Not to mention a delightful “Waltz of the Flowers” with a poinsettia theme and terrific dancing in Spanish, Arabic and Chinese variations.
Many “Nutcrackers” have attempted to modernize these diversions to eliminate offensive cultural stereotypes. Instead of assigning an ethnicity to each dance, Pink sanitized the names by choosing Trumpet Pair, Oasis Pair, and Lion Cub—but it’s clear from the costumes and choreography that Pink wasn’t reinventing the wheel. This does not mean that he was forced to make a mistake. According to this reviewer, the Lion version is the most successful Chinese revision on record, keeping the whimsy and entertainment high while respectfully bowing to the visual splendor of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Also new: Instead of a traditional grand pas de deuxPink sprinkles solo variations throughout the second act, leaving only the duet and coda for the end of the ballet. Like Pink’s luxurious choreography, it’s a smart move. Astute viewers will find whispers of Marius Petipa’s centuries-old past Negative In this magnificent duet for Marie and Karl. This was also a challenge from Griffith and Brasser-Vos; They saved the ballet’s most challenging parts for their fourth (or fifth?) costumes of the night – and they absolutely nailed it.
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Milwaukee Ballet is a confusing mystery that is often overlooked. Although previously unclear, their status among the country’s top ballet companies is now assured with one of the greatest “Nutcrackers.”
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.
Review: Milwaukee Ballet’s “The Nutcracker: Drosselmeyer’s Imaginarium” (4 stars)
When: until December 26
Where: Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission
Tickets: $44-$160 at 414-273-7206 and milwaukeeballet.org