at Arie Crown Theatre

December 8-30

It’s sort of funny–if one stops to think of it–that The Nutcracker should be a treasured all-American Christmas entertainment for the entire family. Based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a well-known 19th-century German writer, and composed by a Russian for the edification of the czar and Russian aristocratic balletomanes, it seems an unlikely candidate for 20th-century American icon.

Tchaikovsky, the composer, didn’t originally hold out much hope for the ballet’s success–he didn’t like the plot, which devoted an entire act to a middle-class family Christmas party. Neither did the czar. Obviously both believed that middle-class children and their parents lacked the glamour a ballet required. And in the century since The Nutcracker was first presented in Saint Petersburg, various choreographers have also been unhappy with the family-party act and tinkered with it. In some versions, it’s all the girl’s dream. In others, the relationship between Clara, the prepubescent heroine, and her godfather has a Freudian edge, and some writers have gone so far as to point out the nutcracker’s phallic shape and a sexual significance to the entire story.

Today the colorful divertissements and Tchaikovsky’s enchanting music in the second act offer generous icing on the balletic cake, guaranteed to satisfy even those curmudgeons who say they attend only to please the children. What Tchaikovsky never realized was that it was precisely the children onstage, and the moral plot (a brave young girl battles wicked mice to free a prince imprisoned in a nutcracker, and is rewarded with a journey to the magical Land of Sweets), that were key to the ballet’s eventual international success.

Today just about every American city and hamlet offers its own Nutcracker–it would be un-American not to. Ballet schools take advantage of the party act to get their students onstage. The Nutcracker is also a great opportunity for florists. Are there parents anywhere so devoid of pride and sentiment that they don’t bring flowers to their performing progeny?

Chicago’s major Nutcracker–the Chicago Tribune Charities’ production of Ruth Page’s ballet, now in its 23rd year–is very entertaining. It tells its story straightforwardly, and ignores any possibly disturbing psychological undercurrents. Is it a great ballet? Who cares? It continues to draw the public to the cavernous Arie Crown (with its appalling acoustics, which almost defeated conductor Joseph Frantik and the orchestra) because Page’s choreography–now staged by Larry Long–is perfectly suited to the cast as well as to the public. The party scene is presented with good humor and little touches that give the kids and relatives onstage individual personalities–some bratty, others well-behaved. The children of various ages and sizes from local ballet schools danced and mimed with fine, professional aplomb.

Sarah Cullen, a talented dancer, was an exceptionally charming and accomplished heroine, and Joshua Hess, her nutcracker prince, matched her well. Richard Ellis returned to portray the mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, with the right theatrical style. The Christmas tree grew to magical size; the mice were comical, rather than terrifying as Hoffmann intended; and their fight against the cute, tiny soldiers was well staged.

The Snow Queen and Prince, elegantly danced by Janet Shibata and Michael Bjerknes, led the corps of snowflakes to the dreamy conclusion of the first act. The second act introduced Soviet husband-and-wife guest artists Alla Khaniashvili-Artiushkina and Vitaly Artiushkin as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince. Here for only five performances, they–especially she–revealed that breathtaking flamboyance and virtuosity that are synonymous with the Bolshoi. In later performances, they will be replaced by other well-known, well-respected guest artists. (All principal roles during the engagement will be danced by alternating casts.)

Leslie Carothers, former Joffrey Ballet principal, was the delectable American Beauty Rose, and Melinda Baker a delicate Marzipan Shepherdess. The character dances were, without exception, performed with proper spirit and style. Manard Stewart was the daring Spanish soloist in Hot Chocolate. Laura Wade and Kevin Ware were the exotic Hindus of Coffee, while Samuel E. Bennett, Jennifer Campo, and Jill Skintges represented China. Gordon Peirce Schmidt led the high-spirited Russian Dance, and John Capozzoli as Madame Reginere kept a watchful eye on her eight very young progeny, also supervised by skilled young acrobat Tammy Smith.

Though Sam Leve’s sets and Rolf Gerard’s costumes are still serviceable and fairly attractive, it’s long past time, I believe, for the audience to be treated to some new set and costume designs.