Review: Milwaukee Ballet’s Dreamy ‘Nutcracker’ Is Back at the Marcus Center

After a year off, the ballet company brings Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Rat King back to the stage.

It’s been two years since Tchaikovsky’s epic “Nutcracker” score rose out of the Marcus Center’s orchestra pit. Indeed, the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, playing its first gig in just as long, didn’t get fully organized until they’d labored through the overture. But by the time Milwaukee Ballet’s gauzy pink “Nutcracker” curtain rose on the Tannenbaum family’s Victorian living room, everything had snapped into place.

While last year’s modified mini “Nutcracker” at the Baumgartner Center delighted tens of hungry dance fans as the pandemic raged, Friday’s fully restored holiday classic provided a sense of normalcy for hundreds and a welcome diversion for Milwaukeeans craving one of ballet’s most cherished traditions.

Milwaukee Ballet Company; Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet

Milwaukee Ballet’s “Nutcracker” plays the Marcus Center through Dec. 26.

Before the pandemic, the company signaled that a new “Nutcracker” might be on the horizon, joining several of its peers throughout the country in updating their annual stalwarts with glitzy new technology and refreshed choreography. Pink has indicated that this could come as soon as 2023, and that his unique spin on the story, its near-perfect party scene and several bits of choreography will remain unchanged.

All things considered, this Gen X production mostly keeps up with its millennial counterparts, helped along immensely by David Grill’s brilliant lighting design and whimsical sets by Zack Brown, both chock full of smart details. But while this production has fared well — created five years ahead of artistic director Michael Pink’s original choreography, added in 2003 — it’s fair to assume that Milwaukee Ballet’s aging sets and costumes are hanging on by a thread. Moreover, there are aspects of this “Nutcracker” that scream the late ‘90s (the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier’s Pepto Bismol-hued costumes and passé Chinese and Arabian variations, to name a few).

While we await the new version, there’s still plenty to enjoy about Milwaukee Ballet’s current “Nutcracker.” In the coming days, audiences will see new faces in the lead roles, which helps keep this ballet fresh year after year (not to mention the adorable little angels and geese in the second act, who routinely steal the show). But for Friday’s performance kicking off these three weeks of “Nutcracker,” Milwaukee Ballet ostensibly reprinted the opening night cast list from years past. And with good reason: The roles of Clara, Marie and Fritz, who together make up the rambunctious Tannenbaum kids, fit dancers Alana Griffith, Marize Fumero and Barry Molina like a glove.

Milwaukee Ballet Company; Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet

These characters anchor an otherwise flimsy plot that comes in myriad variations and has always plagued this ballet. Those who love “Nutcracker” ignore its failings, which are many. The music, in fact, is this ballet’s finest quality. Most of the original choreography was lost ages ago. Therefore, no two “Nutcrackers” are exactly alike, and Milwaukee is lucky to have Pink’s gorgeous treatment of Tchaikovsky’s terrific score. Many versions, including this one, maintain a sliver of choreography that is most closely persevered from Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1892 creation: the second act’s grand pas de deux. And Pink’s interpretation of the coming-of-age story, based on an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale, makes more sense than most as it follows not one but two young girls on their journey to womanhood.

Griffith, Fumero and Molina are just the tip of the iceberg as far as great performances go, though it’s worth reiterating that while some “Nutcrackers” ceremoniously place Clara and her prince in a throne for the whole second act, Griffith and Molina are not cast in fluff parts here and dance nearly the whole ballet, prancing through the fantastical Land of the Sweets and never breaking from their juvenile wonderment. Fumero, on the other hand, has the biggest character arc. As the teenaged love interest of Karl (Davit Hovhannisyan), a party guest and nephew to toymaker Drosselmeyer (Garrett Glassman), Marie grows up very fast and by the end of the ballet transforms into the mature Sugar Plum Fairy with Karl as her cavalier.

Mother Ginger; Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet

Clara, on the other hand, is infatuated with her toy nutcracker, a gift from Drosselmeyer that naughty Fritz carelessly breaks near the end of the party. With the whole company’s keen storytelling ability, even the lesser roles like Mother and Father (danced by Itzel Hernandez and Josiah Cook) shine in the party scene, as do the giant doll and clown brought as entertainment (and danced Friday by Lahna Vanderbush and Parker Brasser-Vos).

The siblings doze off to sleep and, in their dreams (probably), the Christmas tree grows, and the toys beneath it become life-sized. Somewhat confusingly, Clara’s doll-turned-man is also Marie’s boyfriend Karl. Hovhannisyan emerges in princely form after a victorious battle against a menacing Rat King (Michael Rinderle), and he and Marie disappear for the whole second act until the grand pas — again, don’t think too hard about “The Nutcracker,” OK?

Rat King; Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet

Battle won, Drosselmeyer ushers the kids into a snowy glade ruled by a vivacious Snow Queen (Marie Harrison-Collins) for a romp in the cold before boarding a train to the clouds for more magical fun. There, they greet characters from around the world, plus those angels and geese, a few clowns and a bushel of dancing flowers. The end of this ballet leads us to think it was all a dream, but was it? Perhaps, but this dreamy “Nutcracker” is now real again for all Milwaukee to enjoy.


GO SEE IT: Milwaukee Ballet’s “The Nutcracker continues through Dec. 26 at the Marcus Center.

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