There’s a scene in New Village Arts Theatre’s The Nutcracker (a play from 2007, not the Peter Tchaikovsky ballet) centering on a collection of toys that come to life and bake Christmas cookies. It’s a very well-sung and well-executed interlude, as its vampy, breezy music endears us to the toys and by extension to their charge Clara, who at that point is in more danger than she realizes. The crazy ol’ Rats, see, hate Christmas and are out to gut it and everybody involved with it. They’d bag a big prize if Clara were dispatched – such a coup would fuel their dastardly efforts.
But this is very light fantasy, and as such, we already know that this conclusion is impossible. Magic will win the day, even if no one but Clara and her Great Uncle Erich believe in it – its strength and majesty are at the center of the holiday’s rescue, and it’s in this spirit that NVA offers this literally sprightly parable. This is a nice entry in which Abby deSpain, at all of 11, succeeds in carrying the action that matters.
All’s well at Clara’s house as friends and relatives gather (in an unnecessarily protracted opening scene) for the holidays – and this isn’t just any ol’ Christmas, either. It would mark the return of Clara’s brother Fritz from the battlefield, except for one problem: Fritz, a casualty of the fighting, won’t be coming home. His sword is remanded to his grieving mom – and as you might expect, the weapon becomes a tool in Clara’s eventual victory over the Rats. In the meantime, the script tends to lurch a bit, defining the seams between good and evil a little too sharply and thus compromising the magic that supposedly weighs over the story.
That magic materializes in a key prop – a nutcracker doll that looks exactly like Fritz. Saintly Uncle Erich (the ballet’s magician-like Drosselmeyer guy) gave it to Clara for Christmas, and that’s all the otherworld needs to know. Fritz may be dead, but he lives on in defense of his sister and the Christmas-loving world. Sweet story, with director Kristianne Kurner and choreographer Collen Kollar Smith heeding the fine line between the fantastic and the fantastical.
DeSpain’s Clara is positively precious and believable amid her timid face and unassuming voice. David Macy-Beckwith’s Erich is patriarchal without a trace of self-involvement. It’s fun to watch Edred Utomi’s Fritz strut about in the best spirit of toydom. Michael Parrott, Amanda Morrow and Justin Tuazon-Martin are convincing rats who use the stage surface for the tool it is.
Tim Wallace’s one-note set works as a vehicle for letting the story tell itself, and the rest of the tech is fine accordingly.
In an electronic parents guide to the show, NVA raises the question of kid patrons’ residual fear in the face of the Rats’ attempts at grotesqueness (apparently, the Rats initially scared away some kids, requiring stage personnel to tone the Rats down). I don’t see anything that scary, but I can’t speak for the irony in the human memory (after nearly 60 years, I’m still petrified of the scenes where a three-sheets Dumbo flies around like a clown). In any case, this Nutcracker, as written by Phillip Klapperich, Jake Minton, Kevin O’Donnell and Tommy Rapley from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse, will probably touch you one way or the other, and whatever your age, you’ll be better for it amid the holiday cheer.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Nov. 30. The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 31 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $20-$46. (760) 433-3245, newvillagearts.org.