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Matthew Bourne


by Toba Singer

November 28, 2004 -- Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, California

When the opening strains of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" prompt a gaggle of Bourne-to-Lose orphans, in faded black smocks (girls) and faded black pants and dingy gray shirts (boys), to straggle self-consciously onto the proscenium (where Drosselmeier and the Chestnut Lady usually exchange pleasantries), we are primed for a finale where the children are transformed into Bourne-to-Win victors over adversity.

In between, there is much in the way of concept to delight. Most of it consists of social commentary that delivers British noblesse oblige the flogging it so richly deserves. Set in a dilapidated orphanage, with cracking plaster and an imposing clock that screams, "Be punctual or to the clock tower you'll go!" we see orphans cleaning and scrubbing. They are preparing for a Christmas visit by patrons who will review the orphan troops to determine which will receive the very best presents and deselect those who will receive the "re-gifted" hand-me-downs. The orphanage is under the austere command of Dr. Dross (James Leece) and his Cruella-like wife, whose shoulder pads exude more hauteur than the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

The big, beautiful gift boxes never make it to such deserving orphans as Clara (danced rakishly by Shelby Williams) because while Dr. Dross is giving one of the more comely female patrons a lascivious sidelong glance, his petulant children, Sugar (danced with appropriate hubris by the very tantalizing Anjali Mehra) and Fritz (danced with excellent facility and musicality by Philip Willingham) grab the giant boxes that are not for them, open them and proceed to taunt the orphan children with their state-of-the-Victorian-Art contents. The orphans dance calisthenics-type rondos, while Fritz and Sugar cavort anti-balletically, never jumping, so much as executing grandiose fakeouts. You've seen these children pushed by their ambitious mothers into ballet class on the point of the same bayonet that forks over mega-euro donations to the dance academy. Fritz mangles the forlorn little Nutcracker doll (who looks more like Howdy Doody than a toy soldier). Rather than Drosselmeier coming to its rescue, the self-acting children themselves mime a surgical team-one of the most tender moments in the show-and bring the Nutcracker back to life.

In Sweetieland, we meet a slightly different cast of characters than we might have been led to expect by the version that this one lampoons. Mother Ginger has been remastered into a hefty licorice security guard who defends an obscene, glitter-lipped, uvula-revealing open mouth that is the backdrop. The sparkling orifice is the point of entry for all the high-end candy, so long as it has a ticket to ride. Clara, being at the lowest end of the pecking order, has no such ticket. She spends the entire divertissement segment attempting to dissemble her way in, by gamely dancing along with the equivalents of Spanish, Marzipan and an over-the-top solo Arabian, where the mustachioed dancer is costumed in a smoking jacket and an ascot, with a whip of meringue topped by a cherry for a coiffure. Chinese is inexplicably retred as a Marshmallow number, and to the music for Russian, we are treated to a raucous faux macho Motorcycle gang of Gobstoppers, whose tripak jumps simulate sex and cycling.

The sugar-bourne hyperactivity increases onstage as the musical crescendos mark the show's syrup-sluggish peristalsis. It's looking rawther sickening for Clara when Sugar steals her only hope for a love life-the now-supersize-me, hunk of a Nutcracker, Philbert (danced by Adam Galbraith), who may not be able to dance all that well, but sure has all the requisite hormones. In the end, a pair of cupids, one near-sighted and the other inept, manage to make it happen for Clara and Philbert. He tosses a tether of knotted bedsheets out the orphanage's dormer window and escapes with his honey to what one hopes is sweeter place, (not to be confused with "West Side Story").

The choreography is always clever, but falls a little short of the mark, technically, almost deliberately so, to achieve comedic effect. The jumps all look like those that Howard Morris and Carl Reiner used to do on the Sid Caesar Show (Does anyone else remember them?)-high, ballonless and waggly. It would really move the artistry up a notch if we could catch a glimpse of some really good dancing-since there appear to be a number of really good dancers, many of whom, according to the credits, received their really good training at London 's Central School of Ballet. The choreography, while clever, isn't ingenious enough to give them the opportunity to show much that is polished, finished or artistically special.

That said, the show is still a kind of homeopathic antidote to the traditional Nutcracker -fighting a lot of sugar with just a few more spoonfuls, or perhaps we should say "spoof-fuls."

Edited by Holly Messitt

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