Thursday’s opening night performance of The Nutcracker was a sumptuous celebration marking the Joffrey Ballet’s Cleveland debut of its version of the beloved ballet. It was also the first time the Cleveland Orchestra, led by Tito Munoz, has performed in a full production of the Tchaikovsky work.
The elaborate partnership between the two world-class organizations has brought together more than 200 adult and child artists for five performances at PlayhouseSquare’s State Theatre. The result is thoroughly magical, including majestic scenery, gorgeous costumes, enchanting dancing, brilliant staging and the joy of live music.
This gargantuan holiday treat, whose sets were trucked in on five semis, features a grand Victorian parlor that appears to go on endlessly, as well as plenty of delightful stage magic, including a Christmas tree that grows to amazing proportions. In the gorgeous Land of Snow, snow-laden fir trees arch elegantly to frame Clara (Katherine Minor) sitting center stage on a horse as she watches the Snow Queen, King, Prince, Snowflakes and Snow Winds dance.
On opening night, Kara Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels were the epitome of beauty partnering as the Snow Queen and King, a glorious scene in which fluffy snow falls constantly onstage. Zimmerman later transformed to wow the audience with her amazing display of flexibility in the Coffee from Arabia dance.
The 45-member Joffrey company is made up of consummate dancers who also brought drama, humor and excellent storytelling to this beloved holiday production. Standouts included mechanical dolls played expertly by Caitlin Meighan, Aaron Rogers, Anastacia Holden and Derrick Agnoletti, each carried offstage as if the dolls had wound down to lifelessness.
Leading the cast opening night was Michael Smith as Dr. Drosselmeyer, godfather of Clara and her brother Fritz, played by the lively and comical Ricardo Santos. Smith made the ever-present magician more a grand showman than a spooky, mysterious figure, casting spells with glitter dust and using his huge black cape in surprisingly artful ways to reveal characters.
In one ingenious staging, Drosselmeyer climbs above a grandfather clock whose top features an owl with flapping wings and mimics the bird’s movement with his great black cape.
The Joffrey Ballet is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Nutcracker production, choreographed by the late Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Each show in Cleveland will feature different Joffrey dancers in lead roles.
At today’s matinee performance, Akron ballet lovers will want to look out for former Ohio Ballet dancer Yumelia Garcia in the coveted role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. On opening night, she danced contrasting roles as an aged Maiden Aunt in the party scene as well as the lovely lead Marzipan Shepherdess in the Kingdom of Sweets.
On Thursday, Victoria Jaiani glowed as the Sugar Plum Fairy. But as technically excellent as her partner Dylan Gutierrez was in the Grand Pas de Deux as the Nutcracker Prince, he was sorely lacking in any semblance of facial expression. Gutierrez, with his deadpan look, did not portray a romantic demeanor throughout the ballet, in negative contrast with the rest of the company.
Local children played a key role, with 61 Northeast Ohio girls dancing onstage with the professionals as party guests, dolls, mice, soldiers and angels. The party children wore festive Victorian costumes in vibrant blues, plums and purples. Each was delightful doing a little leap as the child received gifts one by one.
The children who wore sizable contraptions around their waists, playing mice riding mice, were adorable, as were the dolls from various countries that came to life after the party as Drosselmeyer worked his magic. Each small live doll was reintroduced in the Kingdom of Sweets as she sat on a beautiful golden stair in front of Clara and Drosselmeyer to watch the divertissements, including dancers from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and Denmark.
Featured most prominently among the local children were the clown-like polichinelles, who performed their own extended playful dance after emerging from the huge skirt of Mother Ginger, a giant puppet operated by Francis Kane.
Also glorious were the pure sounds of the orchestra’s celesta, a small keyboard that sounds similar to a glockenspiel, for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was a novelty in Tchaikovsky’s time — a new instrument that he discovered in Paris in 1891.
Singers from the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus provided another angelic turn with enchanting vocals for the Waltz of the Snowflakes.
Seeing this Nutcracker performance is a lavish indulgence, well worth the expense of buying a ticket to sit up close. The captivating Joffrey production of an American favorite is sure to create wonderful long-lasting holiday memories.
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