By Perry Tannenbaum
On a nighttime set projected onto the back wall of Booth Playhouse that evokes the setting for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Mike Fitelson has made over a Christmas classic produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Aside from Drosselmeyer’s Toy Shop and the tumescent fir tree that sprouts up deep in Act 1 on an empty moonlit playground, The Hip Hop Nutcracker makes few references to Christmas or the E.T.A. Hoffman story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s wondrous ballet.
But a lithe and versatile 11-member dance troupe certainly reminds us of the Russian composer’s music, dancing to a conventional pre-recorded performance of the score with live lagniappe provided by violinist Mathew Silvera and DJ Boo. Here in Washington Heights, with the mighty GW Bridge looming behind the tenements, Maria-Clara is our protagonist. The teenager’s quarreling parents and an assortment of neighborhood characters, some of them gang members, precede her onstage.
Surrounded by such seedy strife, Maria-Clara could use a Prince Charming coming to her rescue. Enter The Nutcracker in the appropriate artist-formerly-known-as-Prince costume, wheeling a pushcart that bears his nutty name. He’s promptly thrashed by the gang when he tries to come to the aid of our damsel in distress. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Drosselmeyer is her prince – except, in this instance, it’s Frau Drosselmeyer, since the impish Miki Michelle dances the role.
As in the traditional Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer flamboyantly doles out gifts, and once again, it’s ambiguous whether Frau Drosselmeyer sends Maria-Clara off on a magical journey or lulls her into a fabulous dream with a hypnotic watch chain. In either case, no Flying by Foy is necessary to convey Maria-Clara to this magical realm – as it is when Charlotte Ballet sets up its traditional Nutcracker downstairs at Belk Theater. No, the gateway to this journey is a graffiti-strewn storefront façade that lifts like the garage door of a loading dock (such protection is required by Upper West Side shopkeepers), revealing a deeper more amazing vista than you would ever have suspected inside a neighborhood Candyland store.
There are more blandishments to the new scenario that you’ll enjoy, most notably the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost where we first see the violinist play, and Fitelson does attack the problem that besets most traditional Nutcracker productions – the fact that nothing really happens in Act 2 besides a pleasant parade of luscious melodies and dances.
What chiefly pleased me was choreography of Jennifer Weber, a marvelous fusion of hip-hop and traditional ballet. Perhaps because Weber, who also stage directed, allows for so much of the dancers’ freestyling to be incorporated into the dance, the lead characters positively gush with charisma. Leading the ensembles, Ann Sylvia Clark gives Maria-Clara a definite Janet Jackson wickedness and flair, yet in the pas de deux, there’s an innocence and grace that recalls Mia Cunningham’s sweetheart exuberance during the many years that she was NC Dance Theatre’s Clara. In the title role, Gabriel Alvarez is as proper and deferential as his starchy military costume would imply, but he can also bust some prodigious moves.
In the holiday spirit, the strife between Mom and Dad is more comical than mean, with Myriam Gadri and Alain “Hurrikane” Lauture establishing a winsome contrast. Gadri is long, leggy, and wanton, a Mom who wants to dance; while Lauture is crotchety, jealous, and hypochondriacal. Another side to the old folks emerges in Act 2 when we behold the couple back in 1984, before Marie-Claire was a gleam in Dad’s eye, so these are two juicy roles. Among the minor players, I’d call attention to Brandon Rosario, as the gang leader and the Mouse King, and Sophia Lavonne as Drosselmeyer’s toy marionette, perhaps the most classical episode of the entire evening.
My only disappointment was in the music coming languidly out of the Booth’s sound system. I wish they had done more with it. Duke Ellington was able to record a whole CD of jazzy Nutcracker hits, making them over into his inimitable big band idiom. I think a funkified Tchaikovsky would be more to the point here, at least interspersed with the orchestral score. Except for one charming moment when his soundboard ministrations mimic a blizzard wind, DJ Boo devolves into virtual insignificance after his overloud preshow and break, and the lonesome forlorn Silvera merely plays the tunes as written.
“A fiddler under a pair of sneakers. Sounds crazy, no?” Okay, that was a bad joke, but I couldn’t resist throwing it out there.