Joffrey ‘Nutcracker’ is an inviting affair

November 28, 2013
The Washington Post
Rebecca Ritzel

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As the hierarchy of holiday parties goes, lame, awkward office get-togethers are at the bottom, and grand, festive gatherings at the Stahlbaums’ house are at the top. What’s not to like about a party where the music’s merry, the plum pudding’s amazing and every kid who comes gets a present?

The Stahlbaums’ celebration is an annual tradition at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, but each holiday season, a different visiting ballet company puts on its “Nutcracker.” Some party scenes look a bit more fun than others, and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet evokes invitation envy like no other company, thanks to great acting, staging and lively dancing. Wednesday night, Washington was welcomed to a Victorian parlor in the Windy City, where more bubbly flows every time Mayor Stahlbaum claps his hands. The Joffrey last came at Christmas in 2008, and it seems the tallest guy onstage keeps getting reelected mayor. Fabrice Calmels is an imposing 6-foot-6, and he commands the crowd both at the mayor’s mansion and in the Opera House. With one flourish from his elevated arm, the party guests part and gather round to light the tree. He’s the host who’s got everything (and everyone) under his thumb. Everyone that is, except for his onstage son, Fritz.

In this version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic (conceived by company founder Robert Joffrey, after a version performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) the Stahlbaum kids are played by adult company dancers of shorter stature. There’s great character acting throughout the party scene, but particularly by members of the Stahlbaum family. When Fritz (John Mark Giragosian) goes galloping by on a hobbyhorse, leading a herd of young boys who run over spinster aunts and nearly topple a sparkly cake, Mrs. Stahlbaum (Kara Zimmerman) shakes her head and gestures to Calmels as if to say, “He’s your son, dear,” and she doesn’t care one iota if the neighbors hear her say it.

The guests, we imagine, are a well-heeled mix of friends, relatives and political allies who will likely all leave thinking that the mayor is a great guy but what a shame about that kid. (One particular priceless moment finds all the adults dancing, and Giragosian hovering above them on the stairway, blasting his new trumpet like he’s Louis Armstrong.) Oh, and that Mrs. Stahlbaum’s brother with the cape and the eye patch is a little odd.

Dr. Drosselmeyer (Matthew Adamczyk) has once again shown up with his goofy magic tricks and wind-up toys. Calmels roll his eyes when Adamczyk rolls out a giant cabbage, and out of it steps a Columbine doll. The guests get into the spirit of things, though, and as the dolls lurch across the stage, the other dancers surround them, mimicking their robotic gestures.

Perhaps by this point they’ve had too much champagne. After one last grand dance that has even grandma and grandpa getting down, the clock chimes and it’s time for the guests to go. Calmels and Zimmerman attempt (in vain) to put Fritz and Clara (Anastacia Holden) to bed. As those familiar with E.T.A. Hoffman’s story know, as soon as all is quiet in the Stahlbaum house, the mice creep out to sniff for crumbs. The ensuing rats vs. toy soldiers fight is a bit ho-hum, but the closing “snow” scene keeps the company’s Act 1 among the best.