Choreographer-librettist Matthew Bourne (“Swan Lake,” “Car Man”) has taken Tchaikovsky’s traditional Christmas chestnut and placed it firmly inside an artistic nutcracker of his own, squeezing and breaking the old plot to bits and reconstructing it from the ground up. Mixing Dickens, Roald Dahl and old Hollywood with flavorful new flourishes, Bourne’s clever, controversial treatment was created in 1992 and revised 10 years later. In its present form, it comes across as two shows — a lively gray-black study of victimized orphans, and a color-drenched dream sequence that works against its imagination and wit with some odd story choices and overstated sexual moments.
This licking-and-lusting sexuality makes it a very iffy choice for young children, especially prepubescent ballerinas who could be counted on to eagerly emulate Bourne’s highly creative dance moves.
Act One takes place within Anthony Ward’s crookedly angled orphanage set, as a group of parentless scapegoats, including heroine Clara (Etta Murfitt), are abused by Matron Dross (Annabelle Dalling), a spine-chillingly severe Nurse Ratched, and Dr. Dross (Scott Ambler), her equal in sadism. A particularly resonant moment occurs when Dross tosses a Christmas tree out the window to a melancholy woodwind theme. Also inflicting torture and smashing toys are the Dross’ odious offspring, both aptly dressed in black: Fritz (Neil Penlington) and Sugar (Michela Meazza).
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Tchaikovsky’s classic melodies (pre-recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) are maintained at a strong but not overbearing level by Paul Groothius, and Clara’s attachment to the Nutcracker is followed by his hypnotic flesh-and-blood appearance.
The orphanage walls splinter and crack, in a beautifully staged effect; sunlight pours in, and before long the Nutcracker (Alan Vincent) evolves from a tall, jerky puppet in white pants, red buttons and bowtie to a barechested embodiment of Clara’s fantasies.
Their dancing has a jubilantly romantic excitement, and it looks as though the deprived, anxious Clara has found her Prince Charming until Meazza’s calculating Sugar lures him away.
Bourne (with co-scenarists Ward and Martin Duncan) emphasizes characterization along with terpsichoric skill, and we feel Clara’s elation as much as her sadness (wonderfully visualized when she heaves herself on an enormous white pillow).
Clara’s pain provides the emotional foundation that forges together occasionally chaotic activities in Act Two. Since Meazza — who dances superbly — is such a detestable character, we’re not quite sure why she succeeds so easily in seducing the prince, and the ending that reunites Nutcracker and Clara, though satisfyingly upbeat, is abrupt and comes out of nowhere.
Nevertheless, the production always contains pleasures for the eye and ear. Snowflakes fall as Meazza, Penlington and ensemble skate on a fanciful frozen lake. Images run the gamut from Magritte-like blue skies with feathery clouds, to a large, open mouth featuring tongue and teeth, and a mountainous multi-level wedding cake.
The Gobstoppers — men in helmets with macho attitude (Adam Galbraith, Matt Flint, Ross Carpenter) — make a particularly striking impression, and the Cupids (Shelby Williams and Lee Smikle), decked out with white angel wings, add a giddy, goofy lightheartedness.
Pink Marshmallow girls (Gemma Payne, Noi Tolmer, Kerry Biggin, Rachel Lancaster, Mami Tomotani) are more palatable figures than the vulgar, lascivious Knickerbocker Glory (Paulo Kadow, otherwise a fine dancer).
This is a version with the capacity to overshadow and displace more traditional Nutcrackers and reach every age level, and it would be worthwhile to re-examine and remove adults-only touches that reduce its universal, enduring appeal.