Ballet Minnesota's 'Classic Nutcracker': Truth in advertising

JAY GABLER | Updated 12/27/2013

Review: A little too busy but filled with warmth, this "Nutcracker" captures the spirit of the season.

Courtesy Ballet Minnesota

When the signature celesta of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" began tinkling on Saturday afternoon, a woman sitting behind me at the O'Shaughnessy quietly said, "Yesss!!!" Had she been afraid they might not play it? This was, after all "The Classic Nutcracker."

Ballet Minnesota has been staging its "Nutcracker" for over a quarter-century now, and indeed, they don't call it "Classic" for nothing. There's a lot that's classic about this meat-and-potatoes production, from the cute little mice to the Nellie Oleson curls on Clara's head. This "Nutcracker" is a warm family affair from the top on down; the company is led by married couple Andrew and Cheryl Rist.

Since the last time I saw Ballet Minnesota's "Nutcracker," in 2008, the company have ditched the live amateur orchestra—which is a good thing, given that with all the kids in this production, there's enough wobbling onstage. Additional wobbling from the wind section didn't help. The switch to a recorded score leaves the focus where it should be: on the busy performers.

This is a highly theatrical, tricked-out "Nutcracker." Sets roll on and off stage thanks to huffing, puffing rats and fairies; the Nutcracker grows from toy to man in multiple different steps; and almost every divertissement comes with its own outsize prop. There's plenty for the audience to look at—entirely too much in the case of the chaotic battle scene, which unfolds without apparent rhyme or reason.

It's not the kind of production you choose to see if sterling dance is your priority; though the professional performers are uniformly good and Sugar Plum Fairy Jennifer Goodman is so solid en pointe that the Vikings should swap her in for their entire defensive line, choreographer Andrew Rist plays it safe and provides little opportunity for performers to push beyond crowd-pleasing to thrilling.

Rist's Clara is also en pointe, and very busy. There's a different Clara for each of the four public performances (concluding Dec. 22); at the show I saw, Gretta Nathe admirably stayed on her toes, both literally and figuratively, for the marathon of tasks Rist has her character perform. Appropriately, Clara is lifted up to receive the audience's adulation at the end of the show; it's the next best thing to a Bat Mitzvah.

The Rists might consider enlisting a stage director to tighten the nuts (so to speak) of this overstuffed show, and rethink the amount of stage time they give to the omnipresent, unavoidably creepy Drosselmeyer (Robert Cleary); but overall this "Nutcracker" is a sweet treat that's suffused with a genuine holiday spirit. Young performers are at the heart of this production—including in the second act, which many productions take as an opportunity to whisk the kids away—and when the Sugar Plum Fairy is performing for an awed Clara, it's the kind of tender intergenerational moment that keeps audiences coming back to this ballet again and again and again.