No one thinks twice about The Gay Nutcracker these days. It takes its rightful place each year alongside other holiday niche productions like that song-and-dancer from India, A Bolly Jolly Christmas, and the yuletide golfers' treat, A Visit from St. Nicklaus. But such was not always the case.
RALEIGH, Dec. 24, 2005--Not everyone remembers the protests that erupted the first year those few brave souls contemplated Drag Tchaikovsky. The region's papers seethed with outraged letters from God-Fearing People about This Assault on one of the Last Few Sacred Things. Religious professionals, who'd all apparently just gotten off the phone with the Almighty--or his closest regional office at the time, in Lynchburg, Va. --railed from the pulpit about the shameless corruption of wholesome family entertainment.
And their easily influenced flock didn't just blast the theater with phone calls. The Good Lord apparently moved one to take some windshields out with a baseball bat during a show rehearsal.
So it wasn't looking too good for diversity's team when Adam, the director, held a press conference. Shocked us all: He boldly challenged the Reverend Ashburn, the Almighty's personal spokesperson in these parts at the time, to a public debate on the matter.
The gauntlet was picked up within hours of being tossed down, and that little AM station on the outskirts of town was the chosen venue for the war of wits.
It was an interesting conversation, to say the least.
Ashburn lead off, as was his want, defending all high-minded values and promising the fires of Hell against any who might think of tarnishing Christmas, Virtue and Young Womanhood.
That was when Adam asked him, "When was the last time you actually saw The Nutcracker?"
Sensing a trap, Ashburn answered cautiously. "I'm not sure," he said, "15, maybe 20 years ago. Like everybody else."
"Um-hm," Adam said. "And what can you tell me about the plot?"
The Reverend shifted into an even lower gear of thought. "Well, there's nice young children ... on Christmas Eve ... uh, opening presents ... and candy ... and, uh, getting rid of mice. Wholesome entertainment," he blustered.
"I see," said Adam.
There was a moment's silence.
"Let me refresh your memory about what you're actually defending, Reverend. Clara, a young, prepubescent girl dressed in a nightgown, experiences her romantic, sensual awakening--"
"What?" said Ashburn.
"--on Christmas Eve, facilitated by her mysterious uncle, who dabbles in magic--"
"Are you crazy?"
"--and by his special 'present' to her," Adam said. "A long, cylindrical and thick wooden 'toy' in the shape of a male soldier."
Ashburn bellowed, "Now wait just a minute ... "
"Under Drosselmeyer's spell," Adam continued, "Clara has a series of hallucinations during which the Christmas tree, its decorations and toys all come alive--"
"Possessed!" the Reverend hissed.
"--and dance. The nutcracker magically enlarges," Adam drawled, "and Clara dances with it--or him--falling hopelessly in love in the process. In the choreography, Clara mounts the nutcracker's arms and shoulders. Rapturously, I might add. In the finale, she's lifted directly above his head."
There was silence on the airwaves.
"And that's not even getting into Mouserinks, the human-sized, three-headed king of the rats," Adam continued.
"Or those hot human beverages and candy," he said. "Just longing to be drank down. And, um, eaten."
"That's what you're defending."
More silence. Then a series of commercials. The debaters did not return.
Things quieted down considerably after that. Other versions followed. A Reggae Christmas Carol, in which the antihero sees the ghost of Bob, and not Jacob, Marley, scarcely raised an eyebrow. At The Klezmer Nutcracker, people were seen engaging in behavior never before witnessed in the presence of Fine Art in these parts: They actually relaxed and had a good time.
My favorite of all the holiday variations? You know, maybe it's the Southerner in me, but A High Lonesome Christmas Carol would have to get the nod.
Some of you remember it, I know: the moving story about the spiritual awakening of that five-string folk song innovator--what was his name, again?
Wait, I've got it. Silly me--Ebenezer Scruggs.
Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS:
Presents, Your Place, Dec. 25; Seussical, The Musical, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, Dec.30-Jan.1; First Night Raleigh, Dec. 31; Rent, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, Jan 2-4
*** The Nutcracker--Dance purists won't be surprised to learn that about half of the show's running time is actually occupied by ballet. Exposition and gestures, theatrical flourishes and stage magic--these (and the herding of dozens of tiny tots around the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage) occupy the rest of the evening. Under Alfred Sturgis' direction, the North Carolina Symphony begins Tchaikovsky's score as softly as a dream, or remembered music from a far off room. Those touted new magic tricks frankly aren't that impressive, but the dance is--when it finally gets underway, towards the end of Act One and in Act Two.
Gabor Kapin's majestic Northwind, abetted by Judanna Lynn's costume, rules the snow and enchants Audrey Hagopian as Clara, and Robert Weiss' sculpted choreography makes Rudy Candia Rivero a vivid escort through the land of sweets. Still, Hagopian seems more shepherded than choreographed, away from all serious dance, in Act Two. The various candy sequences are imaginative; while sheer cuteness finessed otherwise problematic crowd scenes with kids. Still, when the critic in me began to balk at the padding, the faces of the children in the audience reminded me of something important, and the music sealed the deal. (Fri., 2 & 7 p.m.; Sat., 1 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Thru Dec. 28. BTI Center. $58-$9. 719-0900.)