'The Nutcracker, A Play' makes dramatic return to original story @

December 18, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

This season, when it seems like everywhere you turn someone is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet, the Children's Theater Association has taken different path and returned to the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann story on which the ballet is based.

Presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art, "The Nutcracker, A Play" is said to be the largest production in CTA history. It's also a good deal darker -- "Grimmer" comes to mind -- than the syrupy plot of the ballet.

Forget sugarplums. In this version of Hoffmann's story, which has been adapted for the stage by David Hammond, after Marie (who is often called "Clara" in the ballet) follows her Nutcracker-cum-soldier into the mouse world, she doesn't meet up with dancing treats and candy. Instead, she encounters evil Queen Mouserinks and her three-headed son. As the plot thickens, Mouserinks' plan to marry Marie to her monster offspring -- while the caged Nutcracker looks on in horror -- turns into the stuff of nightmares, not sweet dreams.

Given this host of pre-Freudian delights, "The Nutcracker, A Play" could be pretty scary stuff. But as directed by Kevin Daly, with a cast of adult and child actors, the CTA's production probably wouldn't frighten a mouse.

The use of direct audience address, choral speaking and the stiffly choreographed dances give the production more the feel of a pageant than a fairy tale. And while it's interesting to return to the source, that interest is of a rather academic nature and doesn't replace the sense of splendor that usually accompanies the ballet.

Fortunately, this is somewhat mitigated by several of the central performances. Vivian Hasbrouk and Paul Anthony Sapp bring spirited freshness to the roles of Marie and Christian, the Nutcracker.

And Anne-Marley Willard makes a devilish villainess as Queen Mouserinks. As Drosselmeier, the inventor who gives the nutcracker to Marie, Nick Raye is both eccentric and endearing, but regrettably, his delivery of a number of key lines is almost inaudible.

One of the production's nicer touches is the generous use of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Not only is this a welcome change from the usual seasonal onslaught of music that even Tchaikovsky didn't consider his best work, but it's also an appropriate choice since Hoffmann was such a devoted Mozart fan that he added "Amadeus" to his name.

Due to the lessons learned during Marie's dire trials, the happy ending of "The Nutcracker, A Play" carries more weight than the ending of the ballet, in which she merely wakes up from a dream. Although it's difficult to assess how much impact this has on the youngsters in the audience, they gave last Saturday's performance their rapt attention; that's more than can be said for some of their adult counterparts, who, like the heroine of the ballet, journeyed to dreamland.

'The Nutcracker, A Play'

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

When: Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.; one evening performance tomorrow at 8 p.m. Through Dec. 27.

Tickets: $12 for adults; $10 for children.

Call: (410) 225-0052.

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