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Turning “Nutcracker” on Its Head

Review: The Hip Hop Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hip Hop Nutcracker - Dolby Theatre - November 17, 2017

When Mike Fitelson’s holiday riff on ballet and Tchaikovsky, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, first invaded Charlotte three years ago, it wasn’t quite where it needed to be artistically. The brash pre-show at Booth Playhouse presented by DJ Boo somewhat upstaged the pallid pre-recorded Peter Ilyich score that backed Fitelson’s updated scenario and Jennifer Weber’s choreography. Nocturnal settings by video designer Moe Shahrooz recalled the Washington Heights portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – moody and occasionally surreal but drained of the Miranda musical’s inner-city vitality and color.

The Fitelson scenario definitely perks up the traditionally moribund Act 2. Instead of sitting his Clara and her Nutcracker down for the better part of an hour to watch a series of decorative dances, Fitelson sends his Maria-Clara voyaging back 30 years where, in Back to the Future style, she encounters her perennially bickering parents back on the night when they first met at the Land of Sweets nightclub – getting to see them freshly at the moment romantic love first sparked between them.

Very promising, but the show needed some extra spark itself.

Produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the show has returned to the Queen City every year since its forgettable 2015 debut. Yeah, when I booked this year’s reprise at Knight Theater, I’d actually forgotten that we had seen it before. Thankfully, I review stuff. And thankfully, the Knight is exactly where this Nut needs to be.

Memories did not come rushing back when the show began. Kurtis Blow, a founding father of hip hop, hadn’t been part of the Booth Playhouse production, but at the Knight, he rules the pre-show for just over 18 minutes. He’s not the first performer I’ve ever seen who has asked an audience to get up on their feet or to raise their arms and sway back and forth nonsensically, but I’m sure he’s the first who has ever asked me and the rest of the crowd to SCREAM. Over and over.

So audience participation at the Knight has increased exponentially over what I experienced at the Booth. The Knight also has more than twice the Booth’s seating capacity. And since word-of-mouth and repetition have solidified Hip Hop Nutcracker as a holiday tradition, the Knight was sold-out on opening night and enthusiasm stretched to the back row of the balcony.

There is even a subtle tie-in between Blow’s aggressive patter and the dance that follows. Signed in 1979 as the first rapper to land a major-label recording contract, Blow presents his music as unabashedly “old school” and invites his audience to immerse itself in his original vibe, prefiguring the time traveling that Maria-Clara will do before she mends her parents’ dysfunctional relationship.

Things started looking familiar when violinist Jarvis L. Benson took his spot under the neighborhood lamppost and began playing Tchaikovsky’s antique melody line over Boo’s contemporary backbeat and platter scratching. You might say that, as the melody wafts upwards, it infuses the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost with magical powers. Our hero, The Nutcracker, sells his namesake merchandise from a ramshackle cart. He’s obviously attracted to Maria-Clara but painfully shy, and when he gallantly steps forward to save her from the unwanted attentions of a local gang, Nutcracker gets his ass kicked.

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Big difference when those sneakers improbably fall to the ground and Nutcracker puts them on. What vanquishes the gang is even more improbable: Josue “Beastmode” Figueroa as Nutcracker executes a bodacious spin on his head that lasts longer than you might think humanly possible. Literally turning The Nutcracker on its head during its climactic Act 1 battle.

While there are some dolorous and becalmed moments elsewhere in Act 1 in the ensemble choreography, the Knight Theater sound system is noticeably superior, punchier. So as the Nutcracker soundtrack plays, we never get the sense that the Jerseyites are dancing to elevator music. Although Ann-Sylvia Clark is a holdover from the 2015 edition as Maria-Clara, everyone else besides Boo was new to me and eager to strut their stuff. Weber’s choreography leaves plenty of room for exuberant freestyling.

Beastmode, with his appealing rough edges, was the most impressive newcomer for me, but I also like the pixie exuberance and stealth of Lisa “LBoogie” Bauford as Drosselmeyer. Forget the “Herr.” The Hip Hop Drosselmeyer has been a woman each time I’ve seen Fitelson’s version, symptomatic of the diversity in Weber’s casting. Yes, she choreographs and directs.

Sad to say, Nubian Nene is less seductive and more proper as Mom, draining all the comedy from her strife with Dad, though Micah “Just Jamz” Abbrey is every bit as crotchety as his predecessor. New charm and whimsy are injected into the evening by Dustin Payne, whose solo as Flute deservedly received the most audience approval among the Act 2 set pieces on opening night.

Shahrooz’s animations become livelier after intermission, responding to Drosselmeyer’s conjurations and transporting us back to 1988. The backwards time traveling is done like a subway ride, the years spelt out in the tiling on walls surrounding the track – with an increased amount of graffiti as we reach our destination. Perhaps a nod to Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his unparalleled success in “cleaning up” New York? The trip back to the present day takes us skyward as an elevated train reels in the years across the nighttime cityscape.

Wondering whether Kurtis returns? You can bet on it. Loquaciousness undimmed, he presides over the most elaborate curtain calls you will ever behold at a ballet. Many people left before it became apparent that we would have a full-fledged post-show over eight minutes long. Many more stayed – and obliged the special guest MC by screaming on cue. Not quite 60 years old, Blow even busted some moves.