DANCE | Saint Paul City Ballet’s enchanted “Toy Shop”


From December 17-19, The Enchanted Toy Shop was performed by the Saint Paul City Ballet at the E.M. Pearson Theatre on the campus of St. Paul’s Concordia College. The story was new to me, but is based on La Boutique Fantasque as performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1919). The setting is Europe during the Victorian era. The music of four composers (Waldteufel, Respighi, Rossini, Tchaikovsky) comes together to create vignettes that illustrate a fairytale story about a toymaker, his earnest employees, his willful clients, and an enchanting troupe of toys.

Act One opens at the center of town, just outside the (not yet enchanted) Toy Shop, on an ice rink full of Sprites and the Snowflake Fairy (Jennifer Mack), who are spreading their holiday magic. Mack’s strong performance, and the Sprites’ clever and sweet choreography, provide a glimpse into the evening of dance ahead. Eventually, townspeople arrive to glide over the ice gracefully in fancy winter-wear. We also meet a Coachwoman with her cast of half a dozen tiny reindeer who are, quite simply, adorable in dance, tumble, and dress. Throughout the performance the costume design is astounding; kudos to SPCB’s wardrobe mistress Paula Christensen, seamstresses Leslie Harter Larson and Ingrid Marteniz, and a quartet of alterers and headpieces creators. Also, special props to Ann Marie Ethen, Ted Sothern, and Tammy Winden, who are called out in the program for their work on this production.

The skaters are numerous (ten or so), and do a good job blending ballet with playful jabs and animated “spills” on the ice. We’re introduced to the Toy Store’s clerk Noelle (Joanna Lowry) and her apprentice Nicolas (Ross Edwards) as they stop for only a moment, lest they be late for the cantakerous Toy Maker, Cornelius (Ted Sothern). Once in the shop, we’re introduced to a cast of dozens of toys including porcelain dolls, Venetian dolls, pink and purple rag dolls, fairies, ballerina dolls, a handful of cards, a soldier and the soon-to-be-infamous cancan and sailor dolls. There’s a lot of playing going on, and the dance numbers are usually short and well directed for the skill of the dancers, leaving the audience with only a few awkward moments. Thank you for that!

When we’re in the Shop, we’re treated to two strong dramatic performances (not so much dance) by a Russian family and an American family, both trios of well-heeled, strongly opinionated mothers and their children. I couldn’t quite figure out which family was Russian and which was American, but it didn’t matter. It was clear both were vying for the Toy Maker’s attention and his “best” toys. The Toy Maker himself takes the stage in full command and performs strongly in both dance and drama. It’s clear early on that he’s a character himself, and shows the mothers his ranks of toys group by group, trying to catch their full attention (and full wallets), with at least one toy he’s crafted. He finally brings out his “rarest treasures”: the CanCan Ballerina (Jennifer Rockwell) and the Sailor Doll (Andrew Lester). Thank goodness, the families are impressed and toss gold his way.

But here’s the thing: Miss CanCan and Mr. Sailor are in l-o-v-e and don’t want to be separated. Sensing their imminent purchase, they continue to dance their hearts out ’til they break themselves, and gain one more night in the Toy Shop together.

Noelle stays behind to close up the shop, but not before we’re treated to her well-danced solo routines and another peek into her crush on the apprentice. After working, she stops to rest, and falls asleep (sound familiar?), dreaming of the Sprites and the Snowflake Fairy, who help her dance with Nicolas in the wintery land of dancing snowflakes (ten-plus tutus). Lowry and Edwards danced sweetly together, although Lowry is the stronger of the two performers; her comfort level with the role and routine was clear. Meanwhile, in the Toy Shop, the CanCan Doll and the Sailor Doll dance what they think will be their last dance together and we’re treated to a fine performance of matched skill. They are elegant yet fun, boisterous yet graceful. We understand, at dance’s end, why they’re “just right” for each other.

Act Two opens with morning light and a brief overview of the evening portrayed by Noelle who explains all to Nicolas as he arrives for work. Understanding from her dream that the CanCan Doll and the Sailor Doll are in love, she convinces Nicolas to help her hide them so the returning families won’t separate them. But like magic, the Snowflake Fairy returns, and with her magic dust turns both of the dolls into people who escape, quite glamorously, right through the front door past the entering Toy Maker!

When Cornelius realizes the dolls are missing, he is furious. But then the families arrive and chaos soon breaks out as Noelle and Nicolas bring out all the dolls again in hopes of forcing a substitution. In the craziness, everyone except Noelle and Nicolas end up following each other into a big toy box and the lid is shut behind them. Just as that happens, the Snowflake Fairy reappears and with another flourish of magic dust, opens the box to reveal a transformed, in spirit, now joyous Toy Maker and well-behaved children with gracious, patient, mothers. A big celebration of dance takes them all on a journey to be reunited with the CanCan and Sailor Dolls who declare their love in a Grand Pas de Deux from the Nutcracker, and create a universe where all dolls, children, and Toy Makers live happily ever after.

The performance’s choreography flowed effortlessly. Overall, the company performed to professional and artistic standards that are quite high here in the Twin Cities. The venue is family-friendly and comfortable; attendees were even treated to carolers and candy canes upon exiting.

Although most children in the audience stayed awake, my young companions fell asleep, and it may have been the fairly long second act that did it. The story is sweet, but abbreviated solos would have been welcome. Overall, the dancing is talented and graceful, with the ballerinas being particularly lovely. The children and young adult dancers do amazingly well in the choreographed sychronization and group dances. As mentioned previously, the costumes are outstanding and add to the story’s delight. The backdrop, attributed to Ann Marie Ethen, is spectacular for a performance of this duration and size. These elements all come together to enhance the dancing and create a fairly well-enchanted evening.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.