A review by Mark Sebastian Jordan
In a recent article in The Weekly Standard, Joseph Horowitz cited a key failure that has helped marginalize classical music in recent decades:
But over the course of the 20th century, American classical music disappointed expectations and remained a Eurocentric import. Orchestras succumbed to formula. They sacrificed local identity based in community for itinerant star power. They squandered their potential to instill a sense of place.
If one may extrapolate from that to tackle all repertory art, then Neos Dance Theatre continues to push back by reinvigorating a classic ballet in their production A 1940s Nutcracker which I watched at the Renaissance Theater in Mansfield on Saturday, December 9.
The Nutcracker is a holiday classic from arguably unexpected sources: The original story, still preserved in Neos’ adaptation, was by the wildly creative and whimsical German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, whom classical fans will appreciate as the inspiration for Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. In it, a girl’s Christmas gift, a nutcracker, comes to life in her dreams to defend her home from an attack of rodents led by their king.
The charming and expressive music for the ballet was composed by Russian master Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, a composer who seemed more at home writing for dance than for any other forum, though his symphonies and orchestral works are classics, too. I think it’s safe to say that The Nutcracker wouldn’t still be performed today if it weren’t for the music, which has become synonymous with both ballet and Christmas.
Keeping Tchaikovsky’s glittering music (alas, with canned music instead of live orchestra) and Hoffmann’s framework, Neos Ballet Theatre artistic director Robert Wesner has boldly adapted the classic ballet to performances around Ohio, rooting the story in each community by adjusting elements of the projected animation and on-stage characters to reflect the place where it is actually being performed.
In the Mansfield version, the Sugar Plum Fairy is transformed into 1940s Hollywood star Lauren Bacall with her equally famous actor husband, Humphrey Bogart, reflecting the fact that the stars were married in 1945 at Malabar Farm, the country estate of Mansfield’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louis Bromfield, who had been friends with Bogart since 1919. Instead of having the young heroine of the story taken on a floofy trip through dessert-lands (chocolate from Spain, tea from China, etc.), the girl—named here Marie—is taken on a tour through a bygone era of Mansfield.
The projected digital animation used in place of painted backdrops was originally done by Andy Gardner of Leapyear, Inc. In the first act it takes viewers on a tour through downtown Mansfield during the overture to Act I, but with Bogey & Bacall as tour guides, it now takes us to Kingwood Center, the original O’Neil’s department store, and even the Ohio Theatre, which is a wonderfully meta moment, considering that the performance is taking place in the same theater, now renamed after its 1980 rebirth.
The show is also framed by the context of the world war that was going on in the 1940s. Here, the girl’s father is a soldier returning from the war on leave, other soldiers including a wounded one are seen, and even the girl’s grandfather is a World War One vet. When the mice fight the Nutcracker, stock battle footage from World War Two is seen through the window of Marie’s house. From what I know of E.T.A. Hoffmann, I frankly think he would have been delighted with this darkening of the shadows beneath this cheerful Christmas story. And considering that even at his most glittering, Tchaikovsky had a pensive streak underlying his music, this setting does real honor to the originals, while at the same time giving them a local grounding that makes it a community artwork.
With the Neos troupe expanded with the Findlay Academy of Ballet and the University of Akron Dance Institute, the dancing is joyous and grand. Kassandra Lee has a magical ability to be on stage almost the entire ballet as Marie, yet never flags in energy nor does her sense of wonder ever falter. As her object of affection, the boy next door, Matthew Roberts dances the role of Johnny with strength and grace. Their friends are portrayed with equal flair by Katherine Tackett and Kaleb Reilly, and Anna Trumbo evoked the mother trying to preside over the busy festivities. Guest artist Alec Lytton danced the part of Marie’s soldier father. Robert Wesner and Juliana Freude stole some scenes as the comical grandparents, teetering through dances except for a few moments when they strut their stuff
After night falls, the mice come to play, portrayed adorably by the skilled and enthusiastic children. Kaleb Reilly returned in the masked role of the sinister Rat King, physically exuberant without ever stepping over the line into too much fright. Guest artist Brandon Leffler, who had earlier portrayed a wounded soldier, now became the larger-than-life masked embodiment of the nutcracker Marie’s father had given her as a present. Leffler made him an elegant and athletic foil to the Rat King. After the battle ended, the nutcracker was transformed into Marie’s neighbor Johnny, and they were led into a gorgeously animated pine forest by the aristocratic Brooke Wesner as the Snow Queen. The shimmering costumes interplayed magically with the mix of digital snow and prop snow falling from above, and the dancing was pure beauty.
In act two, the Wesners were united as Humprey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, glamorous and glorious in their partnership, some of the most exciting dancing of the evening. Marie and Johnny returned, now in snazzy out-on-the-town costumes, and all the dancers returned in various roles suiting the scenes, including a troupe of ladies as Rosie-the-Riveter type laborers. The ballet was cheered warmly by the audience who were then treated to a bonus surprise presentation by the Wesners’ four children: a short film saluting their parents’ years as dancers and creative forces. Indeed, this whole region has been gifted by their work. May it continue for a very long time.