The Nutcracker Theatre Review – This “Nutcracker” Brings Traditional Christmas Joy to Orange County

Clara (Michele Lemberg, l) dances with the Nutcracker Prince

(Costa Mesa, CA) December, 2014 – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky will be making his presence the next few months in Orange County, specifically, all three of his legendary ballets. The Segerstrom Center for the Arts will present “Sleeping Beauty” in March 2015, while at the same time, the Irvine Barclay Theatre (IBT) will feature the Festival Ballet Theatre’s production of “Swan Lake.” However, both prestigious artistic giants have already begun this “Orange County Tour of Tchaikovsky” with his festive “The Nutcracker” during this 2014 Christmas holiday season. And the results are nothing more than magical. Courtesy of the Festival Ballet Theatre’s artistry, this classic brings an enchanting evening to the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

The Stahlbaum Family watch a harlequinette come to life

All is joyous at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum (a regal Asker Kettebekov and Willa Bouwens-Killeen) as their family and friends celebrate Christmas under a gigantic decorated tree. Gifts are about to be handed out until the clock strikes eight and a mysterious old man arrives: it is Dr. Drosselmeyer (a patriarchal Chuck Johnston), a toymaker, magician and godfather to Clara (Michelle Lemberg), the Stahlbaum’s daughter. The wise man hands out his gifts to all of the children; three of those gifts are life-sized dolls that come to life: a toy soldier (a disciplined Yuki Tamura), a harlequinette (an elegant Megan Yamashita) and a porcelain doll (a passionate Sydney Danci). But Clara receives nothing until the kind doctor gives her an exquisite nutcracker toy soldier. She loves and cherishes it until her spoiled brother Fritz (a wonderfully bratty David Thompson) breaks it in half, leaving Clara in a state of sorrow. But Drosselmeyer repairs the gift, sets it at the tree and all the kids are sent to bed. But when Clara wakes up to see her nutcracker toy soldier, she enters a magical world where to soldier becomes a prince (Alec Guthrie), leading an army against a swarm of giant mice, led by a diabolical mouse king (an impressively powerful Guzman Rosado, who also does a fine job as the leader of the Chinese Pas de Deux during the kingdom scenes).  After the mouse king is defeated, the Nutcracker Prince takes Clara to his kingdom, where she meets his queen and king: the Sugar Plum Fairy (Carla Korbes) and the Cavalier (Fabrice Calmels), where they dazzle their guest with visions of magical sweets in their kingdom, resulting in an amazing fairy tale ending for the little girl.

 

Dr. Drosselmeyer (Chuck Johnston) gives Clara (Michelle Lemberg) a toy nutcracker prince doll

There is a certain type of intimacy about the IBT stage with regard to this ballet where it’s big enough to capture all the action of both the spectacular sets (courtesy of an imaginative vision by scenic and costume designers Simon Pastukh and Galina Solovyeva) and Director Salwa Rizkalla’s fantastically fluidic choreography, but the stage also seems “compact” where the theatre-loving patrons will not miss anything during the performance. The stage doesn’t overwhelm the company and vice versa. The artistic marriage between IBT and Rizkalla’s talented Southern California-based ballet company is a wonderful union, a creative partnership that will flourish in future collaborations.

 

Casting a trainee to play the lead of any production is a risky move, and that is what Rizkalla did in casting the divinely graceful Lemberg as Clara. And the risk pays off because Lemberg shows the full emotional and physical ranges needed to play a girl who enters paradise and evolves into love with her suitor, the Nutcracker Prince. Her agility with her movements---both the slow and the rapid---matches that to her elder company members, especially Guthrie’s Nutcracker Prince, who combines a dynamic energy with his leading man presence. Best of all, Lemberg’s wide smile---which is maintained through all her appearances on stage---is genuine, warm and infectious. It is a true star-making performance for this company trainee.

 

The Cavalier (Fabrice Calmels, r) dances with his Sugar Plum Fairy Queen (Carla Korbes)

All the supporting and extra players shine through the ballet, especially large groups of three to four-year-old dancers just starting out in the company, who are absolutely adorable and should appease patrons of all ages. But there are two highlights in the ballet: the montage of the diverse country/sweet dances and the Grand Pas de Deux between the two guest artists, Calmels and Korbes. As Clara and the prince watch as an audience, they (and we) see the court of the Sugar Plum Fairy Queen: the countries that also symbolize the various sweets of the kingdom---Spain as chocolate, China as tea, Arabia as coffee, Russia as cinnamon, and the Merlitons as marzipan. Each group’s dance style memorizes, but the standouts include the Arabian dance led by company member Tara Gusman, whose solo along with the music combines exoticism with a benign sensuality that conjures a considerable amount of gentle imagery from the score. And there was the Russian group, whose leader---Natalie Matsuura---just brings the house down along with the powerful percussion of the drums and horns.

And lastly, Korbes’ Sugar Plum Fairy Queen and Calmels’ Cavalier symbolize the promising romantic future of Clara and her prince. What the latter have in youthful innocence and energy, the former have in mature grace and slow-building power. These two guest artists’ stage chemistry ignites the ballet to new levels. Korbes physical range and extension matches her regal nature, beauty and style. But Calmels’ muscular 6’6 form is a sight to behold as his moves match the music to every note in such precise yet harmonious ways. With both their duets and solos, Korbes and Calmels add class to the story even more. And when Lemberg raises the toy nutcracker prince at the end of the ballet, it serves as the artistic Christmas bow to the ballet, making “The Nutcracker” a timeless pleasure for both young and old.

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.

 

The Nutcracker opened 12/12 and ends 12/24

Irvine Barclay Theatre

4242 Campus Drive, Irvine, CA 92612

(949) 854-4607

Photos by photographer:  Dave Friedman

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