This time of year, productions of The Nutcracker abound. When I suggested to my two young daughters that we attend several, and pick our favorite, my youngest had just one question.
"Will the Mouse King win in any of them?" Addie, 5, wanted to know.
I explained that the Rock School's Nutcracker 1776 would be different, but I didn't think it would be that different.
She agreed to attend anyway.
We set off to find the best Nutcracker. On our agenda: Brandywine Ballet's The Nutcracker at Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall at West Chester University; the Rock School's Nutcracker 1776 at Merriam Theater; and Pennsylvania Ballet's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music.
The order in which we saw them turned out to be a happy accident. The girls were charmed by the Brandywine Ballet's version (seen first) in a way they wouldn't have been had we seen it after the more impressive Pennsylvania Ballet production.
Was this your first Nutcracker foray? Brandywine Ballet might have been the place to start. (One caveat: 5-year-old Addie didn't weigh enough to keep her seat open — it kept folding up with her inside — which meant a child on my lap for the duration of the performance.) The production was charming, the dancing impressive. In fact, Brandywine Ballet's "Arabian," danced by Caleaf Henson and Jaime Lennon Louis, was the best of the three we saw. Grandmother (Wynsor Roberts) brought darling comedy to the role; Fritz (Jackson Albany) was so quintessentially the annoying younger sibling that Felicity, 8, was downright indignant. ("He needs a timeout," she hissed, arms folded.) The other two productions we saw played the Mouse King for a laugh, but Brandywine's King (Henson again) leaped impressively. Drosselmeyer (Tim Early) had an expanded role and stole the show in each of his scenes.
In this season of Hamilton hysteria, Nutcracker 1776 is perhaps surprisingly on trend. The setting is Olde City Tavern during the Revolutionary War; it is Benjamin Franklin (Colby Damon) who brings a nutcracker to daughter of the revolution Abby (danced beautifully by Ellie Ionnatti). Cadet Johnny (the talented Ian Bulack), his men carrying Betsy Ross' flag, leads the charge against the Red Coat mice. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Lady Liberty all make appearances. An obvious standout was Luciano Perotto, who as both a cadet and a Russian Paska drew oohs and ahhs.
"I loved him," Addie said of General Mouse Howe (Brian McCole, who twitched comically in death). "But how come the good guys always win and the bad guys never get a chance?"
Seeing the Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music is an experience from beginning to end. Before George Balanchine's The Nutcracker had even begun, the girls were taking pictures of the Academy's detailed ceiling. (Unlike so many we sat near while on our Nutcracker quest, however, we had turned off and put away all of our electronics before the start of the show. Ahem.) The Tchaikovsky score is performed live by the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra; the Philadelphia Boys Choir sings.
Little brother Fritz (Rowan Duffy) charmed and drew laughs from the audience; Herr Drosselmeier (James Ihde) had a dark and sinister edge as he perched atop the grandfather clock. This Mouse King (Aaron Anker), with his mix of comedy and dancing skills, was Addie's favorite of the bunch. ("He has nine heads. I counted!" she said of the spooky costume — which she loved.)
In Act 2's Konfituerenberg (The Land of the Sweets), Michael Holden wowed as he jumped effortlessly through his striped Hula-Hoop; Nayara Lopes impressed in "Hot Chocolate." But Dewdrop (Sara Michelle Murawski) and the Sugarplum Fairy (Oksana Maslova) were the real standouts for Felicity and Addie. The ballerinas' beautiful execution had the girls dancing out of the Academy.
Were we sick of the Nutcracker by the end of our tour? We were not. "Maybe next year we can go to five," Felicity suggested.
No additional performances for Brandywine Ballet or the Rock School. "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker" continues at the Academy of Music through Dec. 31. Tickets available at paballet.org or by calling 215-893-1999.