The Nutcracker: Reinventing Sugar Plum Fairies with Sugar Plum Cookies

Toys standing on left (L-R): Alycia Sacco (as doll Phoebe), Grant MacDermott (as Monkey), Nick Sulfaro (as Hugo); Seated on right (L-R): Danny Bryck (as Fritz), Sirena Abalian (as Clara). Stoneham Theatre's "The Nutcracker" is directed by Caitlin Lowans. All photographs taken by Carla Donaghey.

The Nutcracker as imagined The House Theatre of Chicago, based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffman, book by Phillip Klapperich and Jake Minton, music by Kevin O’Donnell, lyrics by Jake Minton, Stoneham Theatre, 11/25/11-12/22/11,

Reviewed by Gillian Daniels

(Stoneham, MA) With a contemporary setting and opening scenes that take place at a Christmas party, Stoneham Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” promises to be a modern update of the classic E.T.A. Hoffman children’s book and eventual ballet by Tchaikovsky.  A sudden chill interrupts the family scene when it’s announced that Fritz (Danny Bryck), the older brother of Clara (Sirena Abalian), has died while serving in the military.

In the fallout of this tonal shift, the party guests dispose of the Christmas tree like pallbearers taking away a coffin.  The core members of the family, including parents Meagan Hawkes and Mark Linehan, continue to grieve.  From there, the original story is used as a springboard for Clara to deal with the loss of her brother.

The actors of the production do a remarkable job, specifically young Sirena Abalian and her fantastic singing voice.  Grant MacDermott also gives a winking, thoroughly enjoyable performance as Clara’s French-accented toy monkey.

The story itself, re-appropriated by Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell, and Tommy Rapley, offers sugary, uneven Christmas fare.  Though primarily about grief, Clara spends much of her adventures fighting the rats threatening to take over her house with “darkness” while accompanied by living toys and her brother, briefly resurrected in the form of a wooden nutcracker. Some of theses fight scenes have gory results, so I suppose the show’s meant for older children.  Then, instead of the Dance of Sugar Plum fairies, the characters sing about baking sugar plum cookies.  It can be enjoyable, but these scenes seem at odds with the show’s core.

The new story is such a deviation from the original material, I’m a bit at a loss as to why it retains “The Nutcracker” title.  Even Mark Morris’ ballet, “A Hard Nut” (1991) changes its name despite retaining Tchaikovsky’s original score and story elements.

L-R: Danny Bryck (as Fritz), Sirena Abalian (as Clara). Stoneham Theatre's "The Nutcracker" is directed by Caitlin Lowans. All photographs taken by Carla Donaghey.

Audiences who go in knowing that it’s a very different kind of Nutcracker may be pleasantly surprised.  The fight scenes are very fun, after all, and the original story is certainly re-told in a creative way. Once in a while, sometimes people just need sugar plum cookies. Viewers looking for actual sugar plum fairies, however, should look elsewhere this holiday season.

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