Theater note: Ballet of the Dolls cracks one tough nut

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‘Tis the season when interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker abound. Dance companies dust off that old chestnut and try to fill seats, and their coffers, by giving it new life in any way they can. Classical ballet? Check. Modern dance? Check. Post-modern performance pastiche? Check, check, and check. However, if your childhood memories of The Nutcracker include nodding off to sleep as the Sugar Plum Fairy took the stage, I suggest you redeem your faith at the hot pink altar of the local dance company Ballet of the Dolls.

After a sold-out season last year, the Dolls mount their raucous version of this old holiday standby again this year, calling it Nutcracker [Not So] Suite, at the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis. The first act closely mirrors the original Nutcracker. Artistic Director Myron Johnson sets the scene in New York circa 1973. The indomitable Binky Wood plays the mother Flo as a sort of Joan-Crawford-cum-Ethel-Merman on a serious bender. The only performer who speaks, Wood’s voice could easily fill a hall ten times the size of the Ritz. Flo bellows, moans, and lurches around the stage in her jewelry and furs, stealing every scene she’s in, as she prepares for her annual holiday party and chastises her daughter Marie, played by Stephanie Karr. Marie, though a teenager, still plays with dolls and has a particular attachment to her avatar and alter ego: Barbie, played in human form by Zhauna Franks. During her mother’s party, Marie falls for a cute boy, and receives her first Ken doll as a gift from her indulgent uncle. The mystery boy and Ken are both played by the dedicated and exceedingly talented Michael DeLeon.

Despite frankly amazing and impeccably professional performances by the dancers during the lively first act, the music and holiday cheer were so cloying that I thought I had made a terrible mistake. I was afraid I’d been duped and this was just another Nutcracker modernized to make it slightly more palatable. While the music extolled the cross-cultural value of Christmas and Flo’s guests arrived dressed in costumes broadly stereotyping various ethnic and national identities, I sank lower in my chair.

I need not have worried. When Franks appeared on stage as Barbie in a bright pink dress and black belt, I felt the energy in the theater change. As Marie’s defender, she shows an errant party guest—who flirts with Marie’s mystery boy—precisely who is the boss. Throughout the rest of the play Barbie appears when Marie is in need. The action begins to pick up when Ken arrives on the scene, but the performance really transforms when Marie finally runs away and meets a band of sex workers who give her a hard time until Barbie comes to her aid again. I’ll let you discover the tragedy that ends the first act—but suffice it to say, I was excited to come back after the intermission to see how things would pan out for our hapless heroine.

During the second act, to my delight, things only got more trippy. A bevy of blue-clad surgeons writhe and slink across the bare stage to a drum-and-bass version of Tchaikovsky. Stephanie Fellner is glorious and spellbinding as the long-limbed Rat Queen in white leotards, floating above the stage and glowing in the ultraviolet fog of a black light.

All in all, the production proved to be a skilled reinvention of this tired fable. My friends and I walked across University Avenue afterward to the Peacock Lounge for martinis and couldn’t say enough wonderful things about the cast. To a person, they are extraordinary and beautiful. There are only a few performances left, including performances designated as “the naughty Nutcracker.” Intriguing title. What could that mean? If you go, leave a comment here at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and let us know just how naughty things got.

Christopher Pommier (c.pommier@yahoo.com) is a citizen journalist in Minneapolis. He also writes poetry and works as an immigration case manager at a small downtown law firm.

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