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A CurtainUp Review
The Klezmer Nutcracker
Vital Theatre Company has taken Jews one step further on their quest with The Klezmer Nutcracker, based on Ellen Kushner's The Golden Dreydl. A racially diverse cast tells the story of young Sara, who falls asleep after a family Chanukah celebration and goes on a fantastic journey. The accompanying music by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky is arranged by Michael McLaughlin and David Harris, performed by The Shirim Klezmer Orchestra. Direction is by Linda Ames Key and choreography by Dax Valdes.
Sarah (Danielle Strauss) and her family are having a somewhat fractious Chanukah when Tante Miriam (Ellen Kushner) arrives with a giant golden dreydl. After Tante Miriam gives a magical interpretation of the message spelled out by the letters on each side of the four-sided spinning top (a great miracle was there) and how the game is played (too complicated to explain), the children fight over the great prize until the new T.V. is broken and all are sent to bed in disgrace.
It turns out the dreydl is really an enchanted princess, the daughter of King Solomon (Jonathan Bauchman) and the Queen of Sheba (Toni Ann DeNoble). She promises to take Sara on a great adventure, but is quickly captured by a group of wondering Demons led by a charismatic Demon King (Christopher Michael Lacey).
Things look bad until the Fool (Dan J. Gordon) arrives and helps Sara defeat the Demons and free the princess. Their adventures on the way include a whimsical encounter with a peacock (comprising the coordinated movement of several actors holding feathers) and the solving of various riddles (with the help of the audience).
If the story is reminiscent of the great Nutcracker ballet, the dance, while appropriate for young audiences, certainly presents no threat to the New York City Ballet. But the music, with its clever and smooth blending of Tchaikovsky and Klezmer, is truly brilliant. It makes one aware that Tchaikovsky was, after all, Russian and most certainly influenced by the folk music of his country, while Klezmer has Eastern European as well as ancient roots.
Gordon is particularly appealing as the Fool and Strauss is a convincing heroine. Casting the author as Tante Miriam was a stroke of genius as she gives the entire play a spiritual and essentially Jewish quality that sets it apart from the fluff of the original Nutcracker.
In the end, Chanukah cannot compete with Christmas, nor should it. Still, Chanukah has become (for better or worse) an important holiday on the Jewish calendar, one that reinforces both unity and identity. The Klezmer Nutcracker has to spin on its own two feet.