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December 13, 2010

The "Other" Nutcracker, Part 2

"Debbie Allen's Hot Chocolate Nutcracker" premiered over the weekend at UCLA's Royce Hall. Some details are evident from the title, such as... 

A) Debbie Allen: film and television actor ("Fame"), director, writer, choreographer, wife of a retired NBA All Star. Owner of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City. In addition to having great theatrical chops as a director of children's theatre, she has clout and good connections. This production featured Raven Symone ("That's So Raven"), Jaleel White ("Family Matters"), and composer Arturo Sandoval, among other big-name talent.

B) "Nutcracker" can be magic at the box office. 

C) The three presentations were sold out. Duh.

But is it truly "Nutcracker" if it doesn't have Peter Tchaikovsky's score? Still, a "Nutcracker," but a cousin, I would say. But truth be told, the various composers whom Allen tapped for the patchwork musical numbers -- Sandoval, James Ingram, Chau-Giang Thi Nguyen, Mariah Carey, Shiamak Davar and Thump -- did not do as well by her, as Tchaikovsky did by choreographer Lev Ivanov back in 1892.

Other aspects of "Debbie Allen's Hot Chocolate Nutcracker" are familiar. The story centers on an adolescent girl, here named Kara Johnson, who is given a Nutcracker doll on Christmas Eve and who, through magic, takes a dreamlike journey to a better, sweeter world.

The production is part-recital for the dance school students and part-professional vehicle for Allen and her friends. The credits of the designers, crew, consultants, producers and directors are long with awards. There are 14 choreographers listed, including Allen.

Allen's students are lucky to be in a two-act professional show of this caliber. They are showcased with glamorous costumes and top-notch production values, in dance numbers that are clever (mostly) and show them off at their highest skill level. Allen shoehorned in a cornucopia of dance styles, giving every last student (one imagines) a part in either the tap dance, flamenco, Russian folk, jazz, ballet, or hip-hop numbers. There were two unfortunate, hokum pieces, one pseudo-Chinese, and a Hollywood-meets-Egypt selection. Let's not mention the aerial love duet. Ah, how Cirque du Soleil has ruined the theatre.

In the most humorous conceit, Allen, White and Carlo Imperato (also "Fame") appear as the Rat Pack narrators. At the story cue for the fight between the mice and the toy soldiers, Imperato announces that he refuses to do this because the mice always lose. "Let the roaches take over and we'll raid the refrigerator," he says to his two pals. That becomes the introduction to a flamenco number with about a dozen girls dressed as cockroaches. A comic high point for both "Nutcracker" and Spanish dance aficionados.

If the show ended at intermission, all would have been well. But an overly long second act focused more on the Rat Pack than on Kara. I say keep the closing number -- a jazz and tap dance piece -- and recycle the rest (minus China and Egypt) for the spring recital.

As with City of Ballet of Los Angeles's "Nutcracker Swings" from the week before, "Hot Chocolate Nutcracker" featured a racially diverse cast and attracted a more ethnically mixed crowd than one is likely to see at most theatres around town. That's a gift for this city, where we drive past the "other" encased in our automobiles. Still, clichés and stereotypes live on, even in these "Nutcrackers." Those are harder to give up, I suppose, no matter who you are.

December 13, 2010 9:23 PM | | Comments (0)

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