Imagine you and some friends have been sentenced to a month of detention in high school. Feeling creatively cruel, your principal decides that you will serve out your punishment by operating the lights at your school’s yearly production of The Nutcracker. Imagine how you and your friends would be sitting in the back of the auditorium every day, at every rehearsal, listening to Tchaikovsky’s familiar score over, and over, and over again.
Imagine further that, to break the tedium, you might very well decide to make up words to that score: funny, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent words. You might even make up a little story with oddball characters like a grizzled and sassy Sugar Rush Fairy and a brainless blue gumdrop-turned-cop Toy Policeman whose charge is to keep misbehaving Christmas presents in line. The goal, of course, would only be to make you and your friends laugh, locating new avenues of enjoyment in a time-worn classic, and at all times mocking the starry-eyed reverence in which this holiday classic is held by many.
If you could then wrangle a talented cast with serious theater chops and a first-rate production team to stage your goofy parody, you might end up with something similar to The George Street Playhouse’s new world-premiere musical, THE NUTCRACKER AND I. Creators Gerard Alessandrini and Peter Brash have stepped into the figurative roles of those satiric wits in The Nutcracker’s lighting booth, fed up with the sparkle and romance of it all, and delivered a charming send-up of a holiday standard. Awash in sardonic whimsy, THE NUTCRACKER AND I borrows Tchaikovsky’s score for a farce that recasts the familiar plot and characters in a new story, equating to something like “The Nutcracker Through the Looking Glass.”
The show opens on a chaotic rehearsal for the annual high school production of The Nutcracker in Pawchusetts, a small anytown in New England. Peter Scolari is the show’s jittery director, Professor Hoffmann, and Haley Carlucci is the bubbly Celeste Snowden; both are elated that Celeste is finally getting her shot at the ballet’s lead role. Of course, the set isn’t finished, the Christmas tree isn’t secure, time is short, adjustments are rushed, and the chaos ends with the tree falling and breaking Celeste’s leg. Denied the role of her dreams, Celeste is depressed and relegated to her home couch, with a hippie mother who feeds her holistic medicine, and a blue-collar dad who gives her more than her daily allowance of prescription Valium: the combination yields Celeste’s hallucinations, which are the frame for the rest of the show’s events.
Mr. Alessandrini and Mr. Brash take the freedom offered by hallucination, and run. Far. The show is anchored loosely by a tale of fraught love between Celeste and the embodied nutcracker, who are both pursued by Zack, a jealous rat king figure (reimagined here as a cocky and brainless high school jock), and the bitter Sugar Rush Fairy who needs the nutcracker back in her ballet. Over the course of the show, the two innocent lovers find themselves trapped in Pawchusetts and are forced to escape into the magical Snow Globe City, “a tinsel town New York City Holiday Wonderland,” encapsulated entirely within a Christmas ornament.
Seem far-fetched? It is. Does that matter? Absolutely not.
The plot of THE NUTCRACKER AND I is mostly a vehicle for its whacky spoofs on Tchaikovsky’s music, and here is where the show is at its farcical best. The show opens at the top of Tchaikovsky’s overture, crafted into a number called “That Certain Ballet,” narrating the rise and fall of Celeste’s dreams to star in The Nutcracker, and over the course of the musical, all the famous music from this certain ballet gets its turn at parody, each rendition sillier than the last. Zack, having his advances repelled by Celeste, sings “Who Doesn’t Love Me,” a tribute to himself and his high school fame, arranged to Tchaikovsky as eighties electro-pop-rock. The bouncy tune of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” becomes a song about Twitter, spoofing the social-media generation (other contemporary targets of the show’s mockery include The Black Swan, Chinese toy manufacturers, and Mitt Romney). The highlight comes in act two, when THE NUTCRACKER AND I pays due reverence to its forefather in a song called “Is There a Ball Tonight,” about Tchaikovsky’s greatness as a composter (of course, lest we think the show gets too far away from its comedic soul, the song features cast member Edward Staudenmayer in an over-the-top costume of a manic Russian composer).
With an ensemble of seven, THE NUTCRACKER AND I manages to parade more than a dozen characters on and off stage, an effect achieved by lightning-quick changes between at-times hilariously goofy costumes. Mr. Scolari embodies the most characters, each achieving a sense of farcical brilliance. His best turn is as a frenzied Balanchine, prancing around in mock ballet steps and a ridiculous Russian accent. Annie Golden, as Celeste’s mother, one of Zack’s rat cronies, and the Sugar Rush Fairy, is particularly hilarious in her range. From sweet but clueless mother to street-tough and bitter Sugar Rush Fairy, Ms. Golden achieves consistent laughs from many different angles. The soul of this show, however, is the time shared by Ms. Carlucci’s Celeste and A.J. Shively’s Nutcracker. Playing the central love story in a show much more about laughs than love, both actors manage to find space for tenderness between their characters. Ms. Carlucci, fresh off a run as Maria in Broadway’s West Side Story, shines with an elegant ballerina grace and a first-rate voice. As the only performer who does not take on multiple roles, the demands for nuance are perhaps the greatest on her, and she succeeds admirably.
With wit and a wise-cracking humor that never takes itself too seriously, THE NUTCRACKER AND I embraces the spirit of holiday musicals in order to lovingly lampoon the genre. It is a light and fun evening of theater that invites us all to the corner of the Christmas party by the eggnog, where the wise-crackers gather to mock and snicker. That, after all, is where we usually can find the real fun.
THE NUTCRACKER AND I
Book by Peter Brash
Lyrics by Gerard Alessandrini
Directed by David Saint
November 29 – December 31, 2011
George Street Playhouse
9 Livingston Avenue
New Brunswick, NJ, 08901