Review: Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

Michael Pink’s “imaginative” approach to the holiday classic means a wide range of fun.

The Weekly Review

If you think that The Nutcracker, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in the early 1890s, is just a ballet, you probably haven’t seen the Milwaukee Ballet’s current production (first staged by Artistic Director Michael Pink in 2003).

To be sure, it is executed by the MB’s stellar company of ballet dancers. But Pink’s talent for storytelling and theater helps make this Nutcracker an event for those who might not know an Échappé from an Entrechat. At various times in its two hours, this gleeful version of the holiday classic is a vaudeville circus, a Busby Berkeley musical, a Keystone Kops movie, and, of course, a ballet. All this, still set to Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, beautifully played by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra conducted by Pasquale Laurino.

As regular Milwaukee Nutcracker fans know, Pink tweaks the traditional storyline to make it a little more inclusive and a little less carnal. In the original version, the story follows Clara’s flowering into womanhood. With the help of the mysterious magician Herr Drosselmeyer, her girlhood obsession with a toy nutcracker blossoms into mature desire for a handsome prince. In Pink’s version, Clara has a girlish crush on Karl, the swain of her older sister, Marie. But that’s incidental to the central storyline, in which the younger children–Clara and her brother Fritz–grow up and leave behind childish things. All four of the child characters–including Karl as the Nutcracker take that magical journey led by Drosselmeyer.

The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

When they arrive in the Kingdom of Sweets, though, the young children aren’t just passive observers. They join the acts, cavorting and imitating the dancers, and behaving with greater respect and maturity as the evening go on.

The final pas de deux is performed by Karl and Marie, transformed into the Nutcracker Prince and his princess. Sunday evening, Davit Hovhannisyan and Marize Fumero brought both grace and majesty to that series of duets and solos. Hovhannisyan’s superb athleticism and sensitive partnering are well known to MB regulars. Fumero, who joined the company in 2014, has a regal, stage gravitas.

The pair also danced an Act One duet as Karl and Marie. Here, the mood and movement is more modern, with spectacular lifts and moments of romantic longing. The contrast between the two duets brilliantly highlights the contrast between the corporeal reality of everyday life, and ethereal ideals of pure art.

Sunday night’s cast featured several familiar faces. Nicole Teague and Barry Molina find oodles of childish energy and innocence in Clara and Fritz. Timothy O’Donnell is a more user-friendly Drosselmeyer, opting for eccentricity rather than the usual dark mystery.   Annia Hidalgo shines in her solo as the Snow Queen, even though her footwork was compromised by the slippery stage conditions. And Janel Meindersee and Isaac Sharratt bring forth many “ooohs” and “aaahs” during their rubber-limbed gyrations as the Arabian couple.

“Waltz of the Flowers” from the Milwaukee Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”

This huge show is also a chance to meet several new members of the company. Alexander Negron joins veterans Erik Johnson and Parker Brasser-Vos as the trio of playfully clownish “Jacks” (set to the Russian trepak music–no cossacks here). Jonathan Batista doesn’t have much to do in his charming “Chinese” solo, but makes a splash with a trio of perfectly executed barrel turns before he takes his bow. In the “Spanish,” both Lahna Vanderbush and Randy Crespo display precise articulation and an elegant stage presence.

The MB corps de ballet have only a couple chances to shine in this Nutcracker. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is tranquil and magical, if a bit overwhelmed by the artificial snow machine. And the Waltz of the Flowers is less Petipa and more Busby Berkeley—hand-held flower “wands” make geometric patterns against the sweet skyline.

And, of course, there are the kids: as little winged cherubs watching the principals on their journey into fantasy, as marauding tweens eager to play with their newly unwrapped toy rifles, as Russian doll figures, and as honking geese. It’s all a part of the fun, which in Pink’s imaginative approach, ranges from the sublime to the charming to the hilarious.

On the Horizon

Stages and concert halls are pretty full these days, which means that two of our major arts groups can be found in “alternative” venues. 

The Wayne & Kristine Lueders Florentine Opera Center isn’t really an unusual venue for die-hard Florentine fans. It hosts several concerts in its Riverwest space every year, and this week, the four Florentine Studio Artists present Home for the Holidays, an intimate concert of holiday favorites. 

Ben Gurnon conducts “The Messiah” with the Milwaukee Symphony this week.

With Uihlein Hall awash in snowflakes and candy canes, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is taking its show on the road, featuring five performances of Handel’s Messiah in three different area churches. The fabulous (and young) British conductor Ben Gurnon leads the orchestra, soloists and MSO Chorus. And remember, the guest conductors for this season are likely to be on the roster of candidates to be the new MSO Music Director. 





Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.