In a week of bitter cold, Portland Ballet Company’s “The Victorian Nutcracker” provided a warm glow for the lucky audience at Merrill Auditorium on Wednesday evening.
This production, with names and sets that reflect Portland’s historic Victoria Mansion, always has special coziness in the Act I party scene. This year, the company has made a change that increases the immediacy of the action.
After the brief but delightful puppet show, which always inspires chuckles from the audience, the curtain opened apparently mid-party, with the guests frozen while the Godfather’s dancing dolls moved about.
The scene gained additional verisimilitude from dimmer, less saturated lighting; this provided a candle-lit effect appropriate to the period.
As Olivia and the Godfather, Ellie Sato and John Saccone gave the party scene depth and structure. Playing the main female character (traditionally called Clara or Marie), Sato acted and danced beautifully, with an active torso as well as articulate arms and legs, so that her whole body was engaged in both performing the steps and telling the story. Saccone’s stage presence and nicely realized facial expressions underlined the magic of the ballet.
The scene was enriched by the range of ages among the party children, just like one would see at a real party. As the Youngest Party Girl and Boy, Sophia Williams and Calvin Goff were charming and held their own alongside much older dancers.
The tiny Sugar Dolls (Isabella Rowe and Susie Strickland) and Jack-in-the-Box (Brooke Drozdowski) enlivened several parts of the scene. After their dramatic unveiling from the Godfather’s vanishing cabinets, James Kramlich and Kaitlyn Hayes were doll-like and precise as the Jester Doll and Victorian Doll.
In the battle scene that follows the party, the Godfather fulfilled Olivia’s wish by using the dolls’ cabinet to transform the Nutcracker into human form. In a traditional story element not always seen, Olivia rescued the Nutcracker (played by Kramlich) by hitting the Mouse King with her slipper, in this case one of her pointe shoes. Sato accomplished this brilliantly, untying her ribbons efficiently and making much of the repeated mimed blows.
One of the few flaws in the flow of the production was the disappearance of the Nutcracker after the battle. It was unclear why he left the stage, as he did not seem injured. This vagueness was quickly forgotten, though, as the dancing snowflakes took the stage.
As the Snow Prince and Princess, Joseph Jefferies and Deborah Grammatic were extremely strong. Grammatic was snowy, crisp and light, and Jefferies partnered her with grace. Their final lift was magically inventive, with a light snowfall swirling around them.
Jennifer Jones and Derek Clifford performed a hypnotic Arabian Coffee pas de deux, featuring a series of creative, melting lifts.
Megan Buckley was like spun sugar as the Sugar Plum Fairy, making rich use of her lovely hands, arms and feet. In her primary solo, she gave fresh expression to the traditional choreography, imparting liquidity to even the quickest beats and pointe work. In her second solo, she performed about a dozen spot-on fouettes.
The Portland Ballet Nutcracker Orchestra, conducted once again by Lawrence Golan, was accomplished, refined and perfectly textured, honoring Tchaikovsky’s score with delicacy and sprightliness.
Unfortunately, that sprightliness turned to a gallop in parts of the party and snow scenes. The snow choir (directed by Sarah Bailey), singing beautifully in appropriate tempo, fell slightly behind the orchestra. More importantly, the tempo became dangerously fast for the dancers. It is to the dancers’ great credit that they kept up the pace, although some steps seemed unavoidably truncated.
The ballet ended with a smooth transition from the Kingdom of Sweets back to the party room, with Olivia asleep, her Nutcracker at her side. A brief reappearance of the human version of the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy left the audience with a welcome opening for belief in the reality of Olivia’s magical adventure.
“The Victorian Nutcracker” is delightfully rich in mood and displays of wonderful artistry from the dancers and musicians, perhaps more this year than ever. It would be nice to see this production in more performances at the Merrill, but it will be reprised at the more-intimate Westbrook Performing Arts Center with two shows on Saturday – the perfect activity for the last weekend before Christmas.