If the National Ballet of Canada had brought James Kudelka’s delicious bonbon “An Italian Straw Hat” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on its recent New York visit, instead of the more earnest and dour “The Contract,” the company probably would have gotten cheers instead of jeers. Not only is Kudelka’s latest work a marvelously entertaining piece, but it shows this technically skilled troupe’s ability to act convincingly and perform in high comic style. Add to this some spectacular scenery and costumes from Santo Loquasto and you have a real crowd pleaser, accessible to regular theatergoers as well as confirmed balletomanes.
Labiche and Michel’s classic 1851 French farce deals with the blissful havoc that ensues when young Ferdinand nearly sees his wedding day ruined thanks to the antics of his horse. The hungry nag munches on the chapeau of the title, property of a woman having an adulterous affair. This sets in motion a series of madcap misunderstandings that escalate until it seems like the entire city is involved.
Timothy Luginbuhl’s libretto captures an amazing amount of the complex plot, and Kudelka has translated it into witty movement that conveys the story without stooping to mere mime. By eliminating the tedious spoken explanations that weigh such pieces down, Luginbuhl and Kudelka have delivered up a platter of pure dessert, with the whipped-cream pastiche score of Michael Torke providing additional pleasure.
The dancers embrace this stylistic romp with real enthusiasm. The National Ballet uses multiple casts, but at the performance reviewed, standouts included Nehemiah Kish as the hyperkinetic groom, Heather Ogden as the glowing bride, Xiao Nan Yu as a haughty milliner, Jean-Sebastien Colau as a preening Baroness and, of course, Aarik Wells as the mischievously prancing horse.
But it’s the sets and costumes of Santo Loquasto that provide the greatest delight. The designer has moved the period up roughly 50 years to the time of the Paris Exposition and used the Eiffel Tower as his visual anchor for the piece.
Against a series of boldly drawn scenic pieces reminiscent of the French political cartoons of the period, Loquasto places a positively dazzling array of black and white costumes. The detail is astonishing, with no two characters dressed alike. The hats, as might be expected, are a particular triumph, and when one courtesan suddenly bursts out in a red bustier, the visual impact is incredible.
The ultimate coup de theatre comes as the bride and groom, finally united, soar over the lights of Paris in a hot-air balloon straight out of Jules Verne. It’s a breathtakingly apt final image for an effervescent work that barely ever touches the ground.