TCHAIKOVSKY MEETS DUKE: Community is the name of Urban Nutcracker’s game — as is an amiable clash of tone and dance styles.
BalletRox's Urban Nutcracker has taken up residence at Wheelock Family Theatre this year (through December 19), as the multicultural escapade loosely based on the Tchaikovsky-scored Christmas classic celebrates its 10th season. Artistic director/choreographer Tony Williams oversees the production, but it's a truly collaborative affair, with half a dozen choreographic contributors and a huge cast of kids, grown-ups, and elders. If you're looking for Nutcracker the ballet, go see the Boston Ballet or José Mateo version. But what makes Urban Nutcracker a treat is seeing so many kids (the program lists a "youth cast" of more than 80) working at dancing and having fun, too.
The show follows the standard Nutcracker plot, with music that alternates between the Tchaikovsky score and its Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn variations. I don't mind the switching between 19th-century symphonic music and Ellington's big band. Community is the name of this Nutcracker's game, and you get used to amiable clashes of tone. In an extended street-scene prologue, kids explode into hip-hop, Bollywood eclecticism, and a chorus-line shimmy. At the Christmas party, the guests perform their diverse styles of dancing: balletic swoops and extensions, jitterbugging, breakdance and moonwalking, a robotic doll duet.
After the family party, a little girl falls asleep and dreams about a toy nutcracker that was a present from her godfather, Drosselmeyer. The nutcracker commands a troupe of soldiers in a battle against marauding mice, then turns into a prince and conducts Clarice to the Kingdom of the Sweets, where assorted confections dance for her. In this version, the little girl's father is a soldier on duty far away. His place is taken at the party by her grandfather (played a week ago Thursday by Ilanga), a dignified gent who also sings with the doo-wop group who introduce the show in the prologue. Drosselmeyer has a hyperactive assistant, Minimeyer, and the two of them carry on all evening with magic tricks and joky behavior.
The party scene had more dancing in it than I remembered, but the atmosphere seemed chaotic and unfocused, with a lot of milling around and characters competing for your attention, in between and during the dance interludes. Certain incidents do stand out. Clarice and her brother Omar (Sadie MacKinnon and Adam Wintzer) fight over the toy nutcracker. Aunt Fanny (Rachel Burke) makes a play for Minimeyer. The guests begin a game of jump rope. But there's no strong narrative action that ties Drosselmeyer and the toy nutcracker to the family.
Guest artist Gianni Di Marco played Drosselmeyer this year, taking over the role created by the late Michael Shannon. Minimeyer was the perennial Yo-el Cassel. It seemed to me that Di Marco hadn't decided who his character was or what his role in the family gathering was to be. Was he an acquaintance, a mysterious stranger, a hired entertainer, a beloved uncle? At times, he doddered around like an old man; other times, he was Minimeyer's cut-up pal, joining the frenetic assistant in practical jokes and a miniature soft-shoe routine. Even though he gave Minimeyer the hard lifting to do and let him subdue the mice with a Flit gun, he didn't seem authoritative enough to engineer the coming transformations.