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Friday, December 16, 2011

Theater reviews: The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 4:22 PM

I’ll have to admit, I was worried. One of those new arts spreads in The Observer had a preview photo of NCDT’s annual production of The Nutcracker that caused great misgivings. The photo clearly showed an imposter named David Ingram portraying Herr Drosselmeyer! Now I have nothing at all against Ingram. He’s one of the best young dancers that NCDT — or the world — has to offer. But the role of Herr Drosselmeyer belongs exclusively to Mark Diamond. Period. End of conversation.

So it was immensely gratifying to find, at last Friday’s opening night performance, that my dear Diamond had not been replaced. There he was, making his usual flamboyant entrance, making himself the center of attention at Clara’s Christmas party, fussing and projecting his mysterious, magical arrogance to the uppermost balcony at Belk Theater. My program, however, did confirm that Ingram and Justin VanWeest are timesharing the role of Drosselmeyer with its aging owner.

Now this doesn’t preclude the possibility that Ingram or VanWeest might rise, in time, to Diamonderian eminence as the eccentric Herr. Certainly such worthies as Benjamin Kubie and Servey Gallardo have achieved such distinction before. But Diamond devotees should note that our hero will reprise his Drosselmeyer on Saturday evening and at the Sunday matinee. VanWeest draws the Sunday evening gig, while Ingram has the remaining performances tonight and at tomorrow’s matinee.

Meanwhile rest assured that the other plum roles, beginning with the Sugar Plum Fairy of Alessandra Ball (partnered by Addul Manzano as her Cavalier), are in good hands — and firm toes. Sarah Hayes Watson absolutely glitters as the Snow Queen, ably abetted by David Morse as her King, and Anna Gerberich is a warm radiance as the Rose at the heart of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.” Ball and Watson timeshare with Gerberich as the Rose amid the general helter-skelter of Nutcracker casting.

My wife Sue and I were utterly charmed by Blake Johnston as Clara and the diminutive Eamon Murphy as Fritz. While Johnston revolves with two other young Claras in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s version of the Christmas ballet, Tyler Haritan is Clara’s nephew and the Nutcracker all the way.

Just as reassuring as Diamond’s presence was the size of the throng at the opening night performance — and their enthusiasm. Much the same can be observed about Theatre Charlotte’s fifth annual reprise of another Christmas cash cow, A Christmas Carol. By the time you read this, tickets may be entirely gone for all remaining performances. The Yuletide classic is being presented in a John Jakes adaptation that is far more faithful to the original than the modernistic version unveiled at the Queens Road barn when the company first began dabbling in Dickens.

Do so many people realize that Kevin Campbell is also the iconic Scrooge in the seasonal North Carolina Lottery ads on TV? Close to where we were sitting, you could hear spontaneous surprise as newbies discovered just how good he is in the role. So I’m guessing good old-fashioned Dickens rather than Campbell is the draw.
Campbell plays the unredeemed Ebenezer with far more meanness than I’ve ever seen from him before.

Snapped my head back a little, it did. This approach makes Scrooge’s transformation all the more prodigious after the three Christmas ghosts have done their work, but it makes the character’s development arc a little more problematical than it is when the elderly miser is just a tad more grumpily ridiculous. The distance Scrooge must travel in two hours is greatly increased, compounded by the fact that a nastier, more intimidating Ebenezer is less likely to be cowed by the succession of visitors he encounters.

Costume designer Jamey Varnadore’s best work may arguably have been lavished on the chained rig worn by Alan England as Scrooge’s deceased former partner, Jacob Marley. But England’s performance, way too slow in his warnings and admonitions, may be the worst example of Stuart Spencer’s work in his first turn as director of the Dickens evergreen. By contrast, he gets sparkling work from Keely Williams as the Ghost of Christmas Past and a robust Roger Watson as the Ghost of Christmas. Even Larry Wu scores extra points as the mute Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, playing the role on stilts after a fine cameo as the young Scrooge’s Schoolmaster.

Work from other newcomers bodes equally well for Metrolina’s oldest community theater. Marcus Riter is a model of rectitude and forbearance as Bob Cratchit, and Geoffrey Denson, despite some horrid muttonchop sideburns, is the essence of good cheer as Fred. Go down the line in the long cast list — Samuel Crawford as Young Ebenezer, Andrea Cameron as his fiancée Belle, Paul Messina as Fezziwig, Noah Carroll and Olivia Tekoltse as Ignorance and Want, and David Loehr in a multitude of loquacious roles — and you won’t find a clunker in the bunch.

Framing it all is Victor Sayegh as our narrator, Charles Dickens, cosmopolitan and empathetic, with an accent that deserves our charity. And did you think I’d forget Tiny Tim? He’s Forrest Pritchett: Delicate, tow-headed, age 9, and totally adorable, though a full four inches taller than he was last year in his Tiny Tim debut.

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