The Hard Nut is certainly beautiful to behold, its production design based on the work of Charles Burns whose graphic novels feature vividly surreal and haunting images. But, it’s also frustratingly erratic—slow at some points, confusing in others—and shtick-laden, with silliness too often overriding beauty and romance. The brilliantly witty sets and inventive costumes by Adrianne Lobel and the late Martin Pakledinaz, respectively, are totally in synch with Morris’ wickedly camp mentality. Indeed, they are a show in themselves, beautiful and witty in equal measures.
The first act, usually the “boring” domestic scene in most Nutcracker productions, is packed with delicious details. From the guests’ lusty drinking and lusty behavior to the kids’ addiction to TV and on to the fussy, funny Housekeeper (Kraig Patterson, who must have toes of steel), the holiday party at the Stahlbaum’s house is a treasure trove of fun. Morris, himself plays Dr. Stahlbaum, showing off his acting chops opposite John Heginbotham in drag as the Missus S. (They later are a hoot as the King and Queen in the “Hard Nut” plot.)
Morris shoehorns into the rich rhythms of the Tchaikovsky score a polka, the hokey-pokey, the stroll and the bump which allows the revelers to bump and grind. The Stahlbaum’s children include Marie (a tremulous Lauren Grant whose character’s path is one of the delights of the ballet), a troublesome, jealous sister Louise (Jenn Weddel, perfectly petulant) and a brother, Fritz (June Omura, communicating well the little bothersome brother).
The toys the kids get include a G.I. Joes, a Barbie Doll, a robot and, of course, a nutcracker, all of which come alive to fight the Rat King and his minions. The stress of the battle leaves poor Marie, the Stahlbaum’s on-the-verge-of-adolescence daughter upset, yearning and bedridden.
The second act takes Marie into the wonderfully imaginative tale of “The Hard Nut” as related by Drosselmeier (Billy Smith, not quite charismatic enough). Worried about Marie’s anxiety and confusion, he brings to life the story which, intentionally or not, helps guide Marie to her first romance.
The complicated tale, all enacted through mime and dance, involves the infant daughter of a King and Queen who is mutilated by the Rat Queen. The only hope to restore her destroyed face is to find the Hard Nut and have it opened by a handsome Prince (Aaron Loux, a handsome figure) who has to perform a certain ritual. The Hard Nut is sought all over the world, the search humorously illustrated by a huge newsroom projection of the world on which lights (designed by James F. Ingalls) highlight different countries. This allows Morris to sneak in the character dances: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian, all wildly exaggerated. Morris also manages to fit in his versions of the Snow and Flower dances in which men partner women, women women and men men, without the sky falling in!
In the end, Marie finds romance with the handsome young offspring of Drosselmeier and the two, helped by the entire company, literally float through the famous Pas de Deux.
The score sounded vibrant and textured as performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble and the Hard Nut Singers under the baton of Colin Fowler.
The bottom line is that The Hard Nut is just plain fun, beautifully danced, richly staged and a great alternative to the many more conservative versions that fill the New York stages at this time of year.
The Hard Nut (December 12-20, 2015)
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.Bam.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission