When I was talking to my family in Ohio and Florida about the latest version of the "Nutcracker" that I would be seeing that weekend, it became an instant joke -- a self-parody of Downtown Manhattan avant-garde theater that folks in New York take for granted, and everyone else dismisses as pretentious artsy-fartsy nonsense. "It’s an R-rated, neo-baroque takeoff," I told them, adding, "and it’s playing in Greenwich Village."
The pleasant surprise is that "Nutcracker Rouge" is anything but another dry, academic exercise that only graduates of the finest universities could dream up. In other words, it isn’t particularly highbrow!
So what is it? It’s a sexy, silly, thrilling and very, very enjoyable mash-up of baroque, ballet and burlesque, pas de deus and pole dancing. It’s Vivaldi, Duke Ellington, rockabilly and a even a 1950’s pop song. It’s breathtaking acrobatics, beautiful partner dancing, slapstick and simulated fucking. It’s circus and Cirque du Soleil; Marinsky and the Marx Brothers and Marquis de Sade. Oh yes, there’s even some Tchaikovsky in there.
Above all, it’s entertaining.
It’s easy to see how this would have attracted the attention of the Saint at Large and its guiding wunderkind, Stephen Pevner. The purveyor of "strange live acts" at the annual Black Party has an affinity for the outsized, the outliers and the outrageous.
"Nutcracker Rouge" was conceived by Austin McCormick, a choreographic genius who has made a specialty of re-inventing baroque dance through his Brooklyn-based troupe Company XIV. McCormick is actually going back to the real roots of court dancing, which was all about hooking up, the early modern equivalent of a high-class single’s bar -- the nobility’s Craigslist.
Let the purists howl. Yesterday’s immoral diversion, be it opera, the waltz, jazz or Elvis Presley, is today’s cultural treasure.
Whatever problems there are in this production come mostly from Jeff Takacs’ script. Portentous tone poems introduce the various set pieces in the land of sweets, but can’t mangle the imaginative dancing that follow; yet the only connection to Act I of the original "Nutcracker" that I could discern was when Clara takes a uniformed nutcracker out of a gift box.
Without a Mouse King, let alone a battle with Clara’s Nutcracker Prince, the whole of "Nutcracker Rouge" adds up to less than the sum of its very good, very enjoyable parts. A brief précis in the program would have helped, as would a listing of the numbers with their music.
Without a coherent narrative -- or any narrative, for that matter -- the audience simply takes the whole spectacle as silly fun. Don’t get me wrong: I like silly fun as much as the next guy. But the tiniest smidgeon of context would have transformed the wonderful performances into something greater than themselves.
Still, when we’re given numbers like the breathtaking Arabian Dance as performed by Nicolas Maffey, who cares? Maffey makes the set pieces by Orion Griffiths, the long-haired breakout performer in the current Broadway revival of "Pippin," look like child’s play. Maffey balances beautifully to the music, often on one hand, in poses that look impossible, and by all rights should be. For me, it was easily the height of the evening.
Courtney Giannone does a similarly great job with a hoop during the candy cane number. And Davon Rainey is hilarious as he sashays and stumbles through the ineffably silly ditty "If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake."
No less impressive was the corps de ballet, which manages the tiny stage of the Minetta Lane Theater as though it were as wide and deep as the Met. The pas de deux toward the close between Alexander Hille and Laura Careless was no less elegant for Hille’s exposed buttocks.
Actually, this "Nutcracker" could have been more suitably called "Buttcracker" (even if Chris March hadn’t already taken the name for his own trailer park trash takeoff of the "Nutcracker" last season). The men’s derrieres are framed by jocks more often than not, and are usually topped with brocade 17th century jackets and powdered wigs.
I can’t praise highly enough the overall production values. Nothing was spared to make this as lavish as anything playing further uptown. The many costumes are each as detailed as their ancient regime prototypes, and the wigs fit a hell of a lot better and are more natural than the ones I’ve seen on Broadway over the past few years.
In terms of the performances, as Clara, Careless brings real acting chops to her character’s transition from the confusions of late girlhood into full-blown womanhood. Shelley Watson has great pipes that are put to full use as she sings through almost the entire performance.
Takacs plays Drosselmeyer, a circus ringmaster who has to navigate everything from bullwhipping his black jockstrap-clad licorice dancers, to singing a roadhouse number, to running around the stage in a giant stuffed phallus.
If all of this sounds like too much... it is. But then again, so is the "Nutcracker," from its skyscraper sized growing Christmas tree, to the human-sized wind-up dolls, to all those kids running out from the skirt of Mother Ginger (always played by a man).
By the end of the night, the audience at "Nutcracker Rouge" couldn’t have cared less if it was high art, vaudeville or soft-core porn. Everyone left smiling once the curtain descended. And in the end, that’s the only art that matters: the art of winning an audience.
"The Nutcracker Rouge" runs through Jan. 12 at the Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane. No one under 16 admitted. For information or tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.