For Nearly two decades of my short life, The Nutcracker has been synonymous with puke. The first (and only) time I attended the holiday classic—a 1999 Pennsylvania Ballet production—another patron rained vomit from the balcony above. This aerial assault thankfully came during Act II, when sweet thoughts of the Sugar Plum Fairy counteracted the acidic remnants of whatever "light bites" the assailant had consumed during intermission. To this day, I'm unclear whether the purging was an act of melodramatic critical opinion (perhaps he found George Balanchine's Nutcracker too traditional!) or simply a case of norovirus. Either way, I haven't been able to stomach a trip to the ballet since.
That is, until last weekend. In the aftermath of Harvey, I've been chronicling the musical chairs of various downtown arts companies evicted from places like the Wortham Center, and, when the ballet announced it was taking its cash cow holiday vehicle down the highway to Sugar Land, I figured now was as good a time as any to get over my Nutcracker-induced emetophobia. I'm happy to report after the fact: Nobody puked on my visit to Smart Financial Centre.
Looking around the lobby at well-heeled adults and their immaculately dressed children, skirts or smart slacks dominated my Sunday matinee performance, although many others rocked jeans, and one man wore white tie, complete with tails. Mr. White Tie & Tails, who was eventually seated nearby, proved to be the most outspoken spectator, whooping and hollering and only half a step from waving his hanky in the air like a rally towel throughout the performance.
It was then I learned how, unlike many productions, where talking patrons are shushed and fidgety children frowned upon, this would be a somewhat freeform audience experience. After all, this is The Nutcracker—it's not as if we don't know what's going to happen. In the absence of that dramatic tension, the company sprinkled in extra delights. Things quickly verged as close to British panto—where the fourth wall comes down and the audience is welcome to participate—as you're likely to find at the ballet. Balloon animals were distributed to children before the show, snow rained into the audience, folks applauded and whispered at their leisure, and kids giggled and exclaimed freely from their parents' laps. This relaxed formality is what separates this ballet and elevates it in our hearts—the crowd adds to and participates in the fairy tale unfolding before them.
Onstage, the familiar outlines of the Nutcracker story remain intact, even after last year's extravagant revamp by Artistic Director Stanton Welch. The Stahlbaum family hosts an extravagant Christmas party at its estate, with the eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer (Christopher Coomer) performing a magic show with life-sized puppets. Niece Clara (Allison Miller) still gets a wooden nutcracker as a gift, which nephew Fritz (Hayden Stark) promptly breaks in a fit of jealousy. Clara later sneaks from bed to see the ailing nutcracker in the living room, encounters a rat invasion, and, after Drosselmeyer helps her magically vanquish the enemy, takes a jaunty tour of the Land of Sweets. By the end of the tale, she's back in bed, only to realize the journey was all a lovely dream.
Stanton Welch's version of the ballet beefs up the cast to approach 300 bodies crossing the stage at one point or another, all in extravagant, custom-made costumes (the program includes wonderful tidbits like how 450 square feet of synthetic rat hair were required for the Mouse King and his minions). There's a particular emphasis on child performers in this tale of innocence and discovery, with my favorite little ones skittering around in bee costumes that make them look like giant corn chips come alive. And, even though many of the sets were customized especially for the Wortham, the backdrops at Smart Financial Centre are no less sumptuous or enchanting. The spectacular scene where the Christmas tree grows 100 times its size still elicits audible gasps.
For me, there were minor points of confusion, such as when Clara largely disappeared in Act II, but that didn't matter among the ceaseless onslaught of spectacle. And at the hands of conductor Ermanno Florio, Tchaikovsky's ubiquitous score undergirds the action, with the person sitting next to me faithfully tapping her finger to the familiar melodies. Between the fluttering feet, Christmas presents the size of cars, and special effects projected onto the curtains, there's just a whole lot to see—a task aided by the two large jumbotrons flanking the stage, serving as the modern-day opera glasses.
It only took 18 years and trip down 59, but, unlike that man's stomach back in 1999, this one is settled: The Nutcracker is a holiday must-see.
Tickets from $35. Dec. 10–23, Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Blvd, Sugar Land. Dec. 30–Jan. 6, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.