Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker premiered in 2016 with new choreography, including plenty of roles for children. Each of the Houston Ballet’s company members dance multiple roles during the show, some performing as many as a dozen. The rotating cast allows for a wide variety of company members, from the corps de ballet to principals, to dance the major roles.
Welch and his team of designers, including Tim Goodchild (costumes and sets), Lisa J. Pinkham (lights), and Wendall K. Harrington (projections), have created a magical production, and it's still bringing the thrills three years in. It’s non-stop wonderment—especially during the first act, which is dizzying with excitement.
On opening night, Melody Mennite was Clara, the little girl at the center of the story. Ian Casady appeared as the magician Drosselmeyer. Karina González was the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Connor Walsh was the Nutcracker Prince.
The first act is set at Clara’s home during a festive Christmas party. The house is filled with family and friends, all having lots and lots of fun. During the party, the magician, Drosselmeyer, gives Clara a toy nutcracker. When Clara goes to sleep that night, she dreams about the nutcracker who becomes a handsome prince and takes Clara to the Land of Sweets.
The second act, set in the Land of Sweets, is populated by the Sugar Plum Fairy, a host of magical creatures, dancing snowflakes and flowers, penguins, and polar bears. Dancers, representing a variety of countries, perform for Clara, as do the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. It's the classic story, and even though we all know it by heart, the Welch production still taps into an energy and inventiveness that is pure magic.
Melody Mennite’s performance as Clara found the right balance of innocence and spirit. Ian Casady’s Drosselmeyer was excellent, a mix of mystery and magic. Hayden Stark was wonderfully bratty as Fritz, Clara’s annoying brother. He also appeared as the King Rat and was again perfectly exasperating.
Karina González and Connor Walsh are among Houston Ballet’s most charismatic, appealing and talented dancers. Together, they were bewitching as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. González, impossibly, seems to grow both stronger and more delicate with each role. Walsh perfectly embodied the prince role, regal and technically brilliant. Their performances in the second act, together and solo, were among the show’s many highlights.
Yuriko Kajiya’s turn as an Arabian dancer was especially impressive. Kajiya showed off incredible strength and control, slowly unfurling her legs and holding her balance for a remarkable solo. Unfortunately, her skirt often hid her legs so some of her positions went unseen.
But, with apologies to González, Walsh and the rest of the company, the real stars of The Nutcracker are the children, who appear by the dozens in the first act. Most are students at the Houston Ballet Academy or other local dance schools, and they dance with the confidence and stage presence of veteran performers. Two children appear as a doll and teddy bear who creep out of a toy box right at the start of the show to dance around Clara’s empty bedroom. The teddy bear is almost caught when a maid unexpectedly returns, but he falls to the floor, lifeless. When she turns her back, he runs to the toy box. The maid looks again and poof, there’s no teddy bear. It's a perfect moment.
At the start of the second act, a string of angels, all wearing identical blond wigs and long white dresses, bourrée on stage. They are the definition of adorable. The children also dance the roles of waiters, guests at the party, sheep following a shepherdess, samurai, and tiny mice medics during the war between the Rat King’s army and the toy soldiers—and they do it wonderfully. It’s a shame they’re absent from the curtain call. They surely would have gotten a well-earned burst of applause.
Welch’s choreography is smart and quick-witted. From start to finish, the dancing is sophisticated and nimble. Children may make up a large part of the show’s audience, but nothing’s dumbed down. Tim Goodchild’s costumes and sets are excellent—each costume tops the one before it. The Snow Queen, performed by Jessia Collado on opening night, has the production’s most spectacular costume: a crown of icicles and a sparkling white gown.
The sets are accomplished and inventive. There’s a glittering party scene with a Christmas tree that grows sky-high. The dream sequence set could easily pass for ballet heaven with rows of clouds framing a mostly empty stage and a backdrop showing a sun breaking majestically through the clouds. Wendall K. Harrington’s projections, including some on the theater’s walls, worked seamlessly to enhance the action on stage. Another time, lights create an outline of Clara’s house. As the scene changes to Clara’s dream, the outline rolls away, as if the house is breaking up. Both snow and glittery paper fall on the audience during the show. Kids, and more than a few adults, reached for the snow and paper as they fell.
The music, like everything else in Welch’s Nutcracker, was expertly performed. The Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio trades conducting duties with three guest conductors over the show’s month-long run.
Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker deserves repeated viewing. Children will, of course, be delighted by the show, but adults will be equally enchanted. And there’s enough in Welch’s grand production to discover something new each year.
An insider tip for parents: A few minutes before the show starts, a pair of dancers appear at each end of the stage and hand out balloon animals to a few lucky kids. Have your kids standing by, ready to snag one.
Runs through Dec. 29. Tickets start at $35. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.