Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hard nut to crack

Mice rock!!!  And for their next trick - Sandinista!!
No one could claim that the Stoneham Theatre has played it safe this holiday season; their current Christmas show, in fact, is an edgy new take on The Nutcracker devised by the House Theatre of Chicago (which also came up with a Stoneham hit from a few years back, The Sparrow). So you can forget those familiar visions of sugar plums dancing in your head - this Nutcracker instead tries to touch on grim themes of loss and mourning, even as it simultaneously attempts to tap into the dark springs of fantasy that bubble from its source, E.T.A.Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."

But if combining those contrasting modes sounds like a tall order to you - well, your theatrical instincts are quite good: this Nutcracker proves an odd, pointless misfire that thanks to its talented cast is sometimes mildly amusing, but doesn't really deliver on any of its artistic promises.  It's not particularly touching, or particularly scary, or particularly magical; most often it's just goofy, because it never coheres; and alas, it comes with a melody-free "rockin'" musical score that swings between Saved-by-the-Bell banality and flat-out plagiarism (one "dark" number is transparently the chord progression from "London Calling" - yes, by the Clash - only retrofitted with Christmas lyrics).

What's most perplexing about the House Theatre's script, however, is that it abandons its own most daring emotional gambit: in this contemporary version, Clara's brother Fritz is a young Marine struck down on Christmas Eve.  That tragedy dooms one holiday, of course - but must it doom the next?  Clara's bid to bring some sort of joy back to the Yuletide is a poignant one; and when her uncle Drosselmeyer presents her with a toy Nutcracker who looks just like her lost brother, we sense that some sort of unlikely Christmas catharsis may possibly be in the offing.

Only it turns out it's not, largely because the fantasy "Cavalier" that the Nutcracker traditionally turns into is a romantic figure, not a brotherly one; and the script never builds any kind of real relationship between Clara and Fritz, anyhow.  Thus the talented Sirena Abalian and Danny Bryck just don't have anything to play; their scenes together are blanks, still waiting to be filled in.  So you can forget about the "working through mourning" part of the script; even though the local rodents keep hissing all kinds of despairing lines at poor Clara about how Christmas is doooomed, she's simply impervious.  And as for the E.T.A. Hoffmann echoes - well, this version does dwell on the long struggle with the Mouse (here the Rat) King that I remember from the original story.  Only to be honest, this is material which is usually foreshortened because - well, because it's a little convoluted and repetitive.

Sigh.  Somehow I don't think this Nutcracker is going to crack the ranks of the holiday classics (although in a world that thinks Taylor Swift is an "artist," I suppose anything is possible).  I'm duty-bound, however, to report that the solid Stoneham cast gives it their best shot, and there's really not a weak performance in the show.  Director Caitlin Lowans has drawn uniformly strong work not only from the charmingly natural Miss Abalian and the sweetly mechanical Mr. Bryck, but also from the witty Meagan Hawkes, Mark Linehan, William Gardiner, Grant MacDermott, Alycia Sacco, and Nick Sulfaro (all these folks can sing, too).  Indeed, sometimes these troopers at times almost convince you they're working with real emotional material.  Meanwhile Christopher Ostrom contributes some appropriately spooky lighting (although alas, his set looks more appropriate to Alice in Wonderland), and Stoneham's live band sounds capable enough, although the composers of this mediocre score sound anything but.  And I'm afraid there's nothing like a lame Christmas song to make me let rip with the "bah, humbugs."


  1. It's hard to thing of this version as "edgy" when "The Slutcracker" is playing not too far south of Stoneham.

    --Alex R. (Brighton)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Alex, but I guess I wouldn't call "The Slutcracker" edgy, either . . . it's a question of audience target. For the family audience, this "Nutcracker" clearly attempts to be challenging. But for the adult audience, "The Slutcracker" is like stumbling on Dad's secret Playboy trove from 1967. Sweet, but hardly cutting-edge.