REVIEW: ‘Nutcracker’ succeeds as a ‘gateway’ ballet


I was once told that “The Nutcracker” is the gateway ballet.

I now understand why.

After attending a recent Sunday night performance of the perennial cornerstone of holiday enchantment at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, my ballet curiosity has been piqued. It’s morphed from a mild spirit of inquiry about a diminutive office on Santa Fe Drive to an incensed devouring of my first playbill bearing that red Colorado Ballet logo.

I think I’m hooked.

But before I forget to mention, I must admit I know next to nothing about ballet. Scratch that: I know nothing about ballet. Pointed toes and dancing mice are about as familiar to me as icy mountain roads are to a native Floridian.

That confession notwithstanding, this year’s performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opus provides just enough modern flare, opulence, and — perhaps most importantly — brevity, to properly digest the titanic work. That holds true even for a veritable ballet rube.

I mean, when the Mouse King (Kevin Hale on Dec. 4) winks at the King of Pop with a brief “Thriller” dance before he dies in Act I, you know this isn’t your grandparent’s trip to the local opera house — thank goodness. (Yes, that really happened.)

With other subtle nods to the 20th and 21st centuries — including a quick reprise of that bane of the 1990s “La Macarena” — it’s spruced up enough to give newbies a chuckle, glossy enough to keep the tots spellbound and, seemingly, performed well enough to satisfy the die-hards. (A former ballerina who accompanied me said she was impressed.)

Led by Sarah Tryon as Clara and Luis Valdes as the Nutcracker Prince, the dancers wow for what feels like a too-short 90 minutes. Shelby Dyer (Sugarplum Fairy), Christopher Moulton (Cavalier), Gregory K. Gonzales (Drosselmeyer), Ariel Breitman (Fritz), Chandra Kuykendall (Frau Stahlbaum), Domenico Luciano (Dr. Stahlbaum) and a never-ending stream of sugarplums, flowers and snow only help to underscore the grace of the company.

Conductor Adam Flatt’s orchestra serves every bit of justice to Tchaikovsky’s peerless score — from the perennial ear worm that is “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” to the lesser-known but still pervasive waltzes. The voices of the Bear Creek High School Women’s Chorus, directed by Duncan Cooper, certainly don’t hinder the soundscape.

And I’d be remiss not to mention that using the term “mesmerizing” to describe the opulence of the sets would be an utter insult. They’re brilliant. For a generation so easily taken with large, shiny objects, the pure scale of José Verona’s scenery provides the ultimate dose of large, shiny indulgence. Artistic Director Gil Boggs, managing director Mark Chase and production managers Pete Nielson and Vitali Prokhnitski deserve every bit of credit for exploiting every inch of the opera house’s inherent pomp.

So don’t be intimated by accessibility this season. The performance demands attendance, but not just because that’s what you’re supposed to do this time of year. The sounds, sights and athleticism stand by themselves. And, hey, the story — even though it’s riddled with some slapstick and often resembles some sort of fever dream — is plenty enjoyable, too.

Even if you can’t get on board with the chronology, that’s what those little screens with CliffsNotes on the back of your seat are for. There’s no shame in using those.

I did. And I loved it.