If ballet bores you, then we’ve got something in common. But don’t let the title of the year-end production at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre – The Nutcracker – throw you. This holiday show, directed by NVA’s Kristianne Kurner and running through Dec. 31, is very loosely based on the “Nutcracker” ballet libretto adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, but its only significant dancing involves three precocious rats who speak in Cockney accents.
The Nutcracker was conceived at the House Theatre of Chicago seven years ago, with a book by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich and music and lyrics by Kevin O’Donnell and Minton respectively. Its forgettable ballads, sung by 12-year-old star Abby DeSpain, take a back seat to the story about a little girl and her parents coping with grief at the holidays. This may strike you as a downer for a yuletide diversion, but there’s frolicking and pratfalls galore on the way to Clara’s (DeSpain, a young actress building a solid resume) coming to terms with the loss of her older brother in combat. These take place in the child’s imagination – or, depending on your own taste for fantasy, via “magic” imparted by her visiting uncle (David Macy-Beckwith). Not only does Clara’s brother Fritz manifest as a full-size toy soldier, but her other favorite toys (played by Shaun Tuazon-Martin, Brian Butler and Jennifer Paredes) come to life in colorful costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings. The villains are those dancing, menacing rats, portrayed with fiendish gusto by Michael Parrott, Amanda Morrow and Justin Tuazon-Martin). Though the true villain is death, which took Fritz (Edred Utomi) from Clara and their parents (Steve Froehlich and Rin Ehlers).
The Nutcracker script strains for weightiness in places and though the production lasts only two hours, getting to the universal moment of clarity at the end requires more machinations than necessary. Still, when that clarity does come, it may bring a lump to your throat or revive a memory of someone you’ve lost and miss, especially at this time of the year. That alone makes New Village Arts’ holiday offering an appealing coda to the season.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.