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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Nutty Nutcracker A Musical Comedy Divertissement

Also see Bob's reviews of Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's A Christmas Carol and Centenary Stage A Christmas Carol

Once it hits its stride, the world premiere musical comedy The Nutcracker and I by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (music), Gerard Alessandrini (lyrics) and Peter Brash (book) becomes a gorgeous holiday vest pocket spectacular as well as a loving, starry-eyed, comically conceived tribute to the isle of Manhattan, or, as it is refracted here, "Snow Globe City."

Alessandrini, Brash and director David Saint were inspired by fatigue with the ubiquitous annual Christmas season variations of the 1892 Petipa-Ivanov-Tchaikovsky ballet, Tchaikovsky's enduring music, and memories of their adolescent dreams of escaping an unenlightened, economically depressed Massachusetts mill town and coming to the Big Apple.

While dancing in the Pawchusett High School production of The Nutcracker, student Celeste Snowden breaks her leg when an insecure prop Christmas tree falls. Recuperating at home, Celeste is tended to by her inept, uncouth parents and her younger brother Peter. She is visited by Eliot, the nerdy student stagehand/ musical comedy buff responsible for the fallen tree. Eliot has fallen for Celeste and has a script for a Nutcracker musical that he is writing for her. Celeste rejects Eliot and his musical, sending him off into the night. Her parents accidentally give her an overdose of prescription drugs and over the counter health pills.

Professor Hoffman, Pawchusett's Nutcracker director, arrives with two small wrapped gifts. Zack, a would-be Olympian who has repeatedly been left back in high school, arrives at the invitation of Celeste's parents to court her, which he does coarsely and aggressively. Celeste starts to hallucinate. The gift boxes are now life size. A mechanical toy ballerina, the Sugar Rush Fairy emerges from one box, and a life-sized mechanical Nutcracker resembling Eliot from the other. Zack forces himself on Celeste. The Celeste smitten Nutcracker defends her. Her parents blame The Nutcracker for the melee which follows and call the police who arrives in the form of a tough toy policeman.

Magic is about to engulf us. I refer to theatre magic, which will bring delight to the remaining several minutes of act one of The Nutcracker and I and pretty much all of act two, the divertissements portion of this Nutcracker. First, Celeste and the Nutcracker, who has magically healed her leg, sing of their feelings for each other—"Black Velvet Night—(to the music of "In the Pine Forest") and then the Nutcracker magically transforms a small Christmas tree snow globe ornament depicting Times Square into an enormous one into which they escape from their pursuing persecutors. "It's New York in a snow globe. We call it Snow Globe City. You'll love it there, Celeste. Come with me!" And The Nutcracker and Celeste sing "Let's Fly Away" (to the Pas de Deux coda act two):

Escape with me
Into a land
Where toys in love
Never are hunted
Forbidden love
Is never banned

We can be
Free to be
Life made us ...

Take me to the love
I can't find on Earth
Bring me to a world
Where charm still has worth
Inside my dome
Come to my home/ Far from my home

Act two, until Dorothy returns home to Kansas ... oops, I mean, until Celeste returns home to Pawchusett to wrap matters up in heartwarming fashion, we have a series of those divertissements with additional snow globe cityscapes featuring West 57th Street and other environs, and Lincoln Center where Celeste triumphs. These delightful sequences celebrate and poke fun at various neighborhoods, ethnic foods, famous restaurants, cultural institutions, fashionable shopping, the celebrities and the people of New York—all this with hilarious, hip Forbidden Broadway style lyrics by the man himself, Gerard Alessandrini, set to Tchaikovsky music from "The Nutcracker."

However, there is that unfortunate bulk of the first act that does fall flat, and is sorely in need of rethinking. At present, it lacks subtlety and charm. (Zack is gross, and he grossly overwhelms his scenes.)

When Mother enters to serve everyone egg nog, she notes that Professor Hoffman has left without having had any. Father responds, "Your egg nog makes everybody go." Shortly thereafter, the Sugar Rush Fairy sings the following lyric to the melody of the "Dance of the Sugar Plums":

They're a little soggy
Sticky sweet
If you cheat
You'll excrete
When you're in the loo

Although there is likely an intended link between the egg nog and the candy, as both Mother and the Sugar Rush Fairy are played by one actress, Alessandrini and Brash could do better than that.

Rather than going the route of clever double, entendres which could send adults into spasms of laughter without fear that their kiddies would understand humor that is inappropriate for them, the gay sexual innuendoes are specific, rendering The Nutcracker and I in its present form unsuitable for pre-adolescents. My favorite blue line seems subtle enough for the unaware to miss. It belongs to the villainous Sugar Rush Fairy who has followed Celeste to "Snow Globe City! Where every man has a lollipop in his pocket and a smile on his face!"

Now to a most successful conceit of The Nutcracker and I. Five of seven actors perform multiple roles. The star comedian is the perfectly balanced, fearlessly over the top Peter Scolari. Bringing to mind the great Sid Caesar, Scolari employs a series of accents and attitudes to bring hilarity to the roles of Professor Hoffman, the fearsome toy policeman, a couple of New York City ethnic types, a Pawchusett doctor, and George Balanchine. Edward Staudenmayer is entertaining as the father and in a variety of other roles, including Peter Ilyich himself, not dissimilar from those of Scolari. It would not be far off the mark to say that the delightful Annie Golden is their Imogene Coca as the Mother, the Sugar Rush Fairy, and in two additional roles.

Haley Carlucci as Celeste and A.J. Shively as Eliot/ The Nutcracker make for a charming couple, striking sparks as they sing and dance together. They sing beautifully with wide range. As the music is from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet, Carlucci gets to sing some high Cs which she manages smoothly with neither shrillness nor strain.

Nick Dalton as Zack and Aidan Benavides as Celeste's younger brother Peter ably round out the cast.

There is an enveloping wintry beauty to Snow Globe City which in all three of its guises fully lives up to its program description as being "a tinsel-town New York City holiday wonderland." Framed by a large curtained false proscenium, lushly lit by Joe Saint and surrounded with the swirling movements of sweeping digitally projected images by projection designer Steve Channon, James Youmans' set for the relatively modest sized stage fills the senses with an evocation of watching a Radio City Music Hall spectacular. David Murin's costumes add additional color and fun to the stage picture

Aided by this setting and some lovely and some loony choreography by Joseph Simeone, David Saint directs The Nutcracker and I with a giddy zeal that reveals his own passion for New York City and the material at hand.

Do not worry that the road leading to Snow Globe City is still under construction. Just hang in there. For once it gets to the Big Apple, The Nutcracker and I is filled with delight.

The Nutcracker and I continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday 7 PM; Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 2 PM - No performances 12/15 Matinees; 12/24 and 12/25 / Extra Performance 12/28 Matinee- through December 31, 2011, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online:

The Nutcracker and I conceived and written by Gerard Alessandrini and Peter Brash/ Book by Peter Brash/ Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky/ Lyrics by Gerard Alessandrini/ Directed by David Saint

Professor Hoffman, etc......................Peter Scolari
Celeste Snowden.............................Haley Carlucci
Eliot/Nutcracker...................................A.J. Shively
Zack Whitefield.....................................Nick Dalton
Mother, etc........................................Annie Gordon
Father, etc...........................Edward Staudenmayer
Peter Snowden, etc......................Adrian Benavides

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- Bob Rendell

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