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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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ISTHMUS PARENTS

Mama Madison: Second chances
Musings on traditional family holiday entertainment


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When my sister asked if my kids and I would like to take in a performance of The Nutcracker together this weekend, I really hoped to be able to say a heartfelt yes. Both our nine-year-old daughters have friends in the Madison Ballet production and I want to be supportive of their big debut on the Overture stage.

But I politely declined and let her in on my dirty little holiday-season secret. "The Nutcracker" just doesn't do it for me.

It's not like I haven't tried to appreciate the iconic Christmas-themed ballet. This nice Jewish girl actually went, one could say almost religiously, to its performance every December between the ages of five and ten. I went with my equally Jewish grandfather. To this day I'm not sure why he chose this particular work to introduce me to the world of theater. Maybe it was because both the "Nutcracker" and my family shared a common Russian heritage. After all, the "Nutcracker Ballet" debuted in St. Petersburg in December 1892 -- right around the same time my people were likely fleeing the pogroms.

Perhaps a trip to Fiddler on the Roof might have made a lot more sense.

But regardless of religious dissonance, every December the ritual would be the same. I would don a velvet dress and itchy polyester tights and my Pop Pop would take me out to a pre-performance lunch at a restaurant that served Shirley Temples. And that mocktail was the highlight of the day for me. Because once we got to the theater and I settled into the plush seats, an overwhelming desire to nap set in. I often made it through the mouse battle, but was out cold for act 2. Most years I missed the snowflakes, the candy canes and those crazy gingerbread kids that come rushing out from under Mother Ginger's skirt. I don't think I ever once saw the famed pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince. I usually woke up right around the same time as Clara.

I wanted to love the Nutcracker, I really did. And I certainly cherished the "alone time" with my doting grandfather. But it became clear after about my fourth viewing of the Tchaikovsky classic that my issue wasn't the music, the Christmas setting or the glorification of an 18th century kitchen tool. As it turns out, I did not then, nor do I have now, the patience to appreciate ballet. I have a hard time following a story that does not include spoken word. I want, perhaps need, songs to accompany my dance. If I'm in search of a holiday storyline that romanticizes toys coming to life, I'll always default to the "Island of Misfit Toys" from Rudolph.

But this has left me in a bit of predicament in my quest to build a lasting (and hopefully positive) childhood performance memory for my family around the holidays. We want some holiday theater, but I want it with words.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you feel about the length of Bleak House, words are something Charles Dickens is known for. And, as we discovered a couple years back, the Children's Theater of Madison's A Christmas Carol might just be the perfect theater-going tradition for my family. Perhaps it's because I'm a huge fan of APT's James Ridge, especially when he's playing angry characters like Shylock and Scrooge. Maybe it's the spookiness of ghosts--whether Past, Present or Future"that keep my macabre-loving kids entranced. And, as is true, as well, for the Nutcracker, my kids' love seeing local children, many right around their ages, up on stage strutting their stuff.

But mostly, I look forward to welling up during the final scene as Scrooge makes a difference in the life of the Cratchit family, especially Tiny Tim. Because in the end, A Christmas Carol is the story of redemption. A story of second chances.

And it with that spirit that I will give careful thought to revisiting The Nutcracker come next holiday season. Or maybe we'll even try one of the quirkier Nutcracker-inspired works about town like Nutcracker Fantasy or Li Chiao-Ping's The "Knotcracker".

Because in Dickens' classic it is the ever-silent ghost of "Christmas Yet to Come" who most precipitates Scrooge's transformation. And maybe two hours of no talking, ballet style, could actually do me some good, as well.

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