It might have been cold and gray outside, but the Madison Ballet production of The Nutcracker (through Dec. 24) made Overture Hall colorful and inviting on Saturday afternoon. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, sounded even better than last year. I may tire of hearing Tchaikovsky's famous score in holiday commercials, but I always find thrills in productions of his holiday ballet, both on the stage and in the orchestra pit. It was heartening to see the audience respond as enthusiastically to DeMain and his musicians as they did to the dancers.
Artistic director W. Earle Smith has the Nutcracker story unfold at a Christmas celebration attended by guests from around the globe. Clara Stahlbaum (a sweet and bright-eyed Giorgia Hughes) and her parents (Holly Walker and Peter Kuzma) host the party in their lavish home with a grand staircase that's perfect for the dramatic entrance of her mysterious godfather, Drosselmeyer (Sam White). There is a lot of pantomime at this party, which can get rather tedious, but Drosselmeyer brings two dancing dolls to liven things up (the talented McKenna Collins and Jacob Ashley). Other bright spots include saucy maids chasing after wrapping paper flung on the floor and a tender dance between Herr Stahlbaum and Clara. She is excited about the nutcracker doll Drosselmeyer has given her and irked when her petulant little brother, Fritz (Kai Gerou), mistreats the doll.
After the guests have departed, Clara sneaks downstairs and falls asleep, only to be woken by baby mice squiggling around her. She also sees a magically growing tree, toy soldiers fighting an army of rats, and her nutcracker doll, now a life-size man (the chivalrous and steady Brian Roethlisberger) triumphing over the Rat King (Logan Beilke-Skong). She then dreams that she's a fully grown woman (the always luminous Marguerite Luksik), and a romance with her nutcracker prince ensues, first in a snowy kingdom and then in magical garden filled with dancers from around the world (representing the homelands of party guests from Act I).
The snow scene is the ballet's loveliest, with Smith's gorgeous pas de deux for Luksik and Roethlisberger providing the perfect transition from the hustle and bustle of the party scene to the dreamy ambiance of a romance. Smith gives the couple time to get acquainted, and the music here is some of Tchaikovsky's finest. The corps de ballet does solid work in stunning costumes. Glittery bodices are attached to frothy layers of skirt that swirl around the dancers. Smith creates pretty tableaus using all of the dancers, then gives all of them a chance to shine individually as they cross the stage in bold grand allegro sequences. My eyes were often drawn to Rachelle Butler.
The garden has vibrant pansies, roses and butterflies. Here a crew of teeny garden attendants in curly white wigs scamper about, taking their job of forming neat lines very seriously. Luksik performs the Sugar Plum Fairy solo with aplomb. The Arabian pas de deux is a genuinely sexy concoction featuring the pliable and sultry Jessica Mackinson. This year's Mirliton, Morgan Davison, is very precise in a dainty and demanding solo. Sean Tikkun portrays Mother Ginger on stilts, wearing an enormous skirt that at first hides her Pulcinellas, a brood of silly, tumbling children. A young audience member near me whispered, "She is having lots of babies." Smith deserves praise for giving the cast's children age-appropriate steps to dance. He doesn't force them to look like tiny grownups performing virtuosic feats.
The performance's biggest delight was Shannon Quirk as the Dewdrop Fairy in the "Waltz of the Flowers." Again, the corps de ballet looked good, but I found myself wishing that she'd get back on stage as soon as possible. Wearing the prettiest little sliver of pale pink chiffon, she is the quintessential ballerina with her high cheekbones, supple back and perfectly articulated legs and feet. Quirk manages to be completely regal and elegant, even when taking chances and pushing herself. She rivals some of the Dewdrop soloists that I've seen over the years in the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker in terms of fully realizing the role. Madison Ballet is lucky to have her.
The grand pas deux has lots of bells and whistles with its exciting lifts, dives and turns, but my favorite moment is when Luksik and Roethlisberger did a phrase in unison that culminated in jubilant tour jetés. In these moments they look genuinely delighted to be dancing for the audience. As Act II ends, the cast gathers to wave goodbye to Clara on her flying settee, and we realize that she wasn't the only one who was transported to a magical place.