For 11 years, Anthony Williams and his feisty dance company BalletRox have been showing holiday audiences how much can be done with a shoestring budget and a lot of heart. “Urban Nutcracker’’ takes the familiar tale of Clara (renamed Clarice) and her beloved magical toy nutcracker out of Victorian England and plops her onto the bustling streets of contemporary Boston. There and along her fantastical journey, we meet a colorful crew of ballerinas, tappers, hip-hoppers, Bollywood dancers, and hoopers.
Combining student dancers with professionals, “Urban Nutcracker’’ is wildly uneven, as one might expect given the range of skill levels. At the heart of BalletRox’s educational mission is a commitment to underserved youth and racial and socioeconomic diversity, and that’s vividly on display here. But “Urban Nutcracker’’ is also fun and very cute, peppered with clever details and updates, set to music interweaving the traditional Tchaikovsky score with Duke Ellington’s version.
The first act of the current show is much weaker than in some past productions. In only its second year at the Wheelock Family Theatre, it still hasn’t settled in, and at Saturday’s opening matinee, many of the scenes looked crowded and messy. The Prologue trots out the personable Doo Wop Singers, kids from the Boston Tap Company, and a big crew of girls in a lively but suggestive Bollywood number. It feels superfluous (except to showcase more young dancers) and saps magic and cohesion from the story setup.
Much of the first act mischief is orchestrated by Drosselmeyer (Gianni Di Marco) and Minimeyer, performed by longtime cast member Yo-el Cassell. The diminutive dancer’s loose limbs and rubbery face give the character antic comic flair. The party scene is enlivened by a jazzy swing dance number featuring partnered flips and split leaps. With impressive break dance moves and jangly isolations, Destiny McCottrell is a standout as a Michael Jackson doll. The mice are predictably precocious, but they are no match for a capable corps of soldiers costumed in fatigue tights, pointe shoes, and boxing gloves. As the scene changes to a snowy landscape, Snow Queen Olga Marchenko graciously leads the Snowflakes through a flurry of grand jetés and pirouettes.
The second act takes off with the expected set of character dances, and many are delightfully untraditional. Instead of Polichinelles, tiny tappers emerge from a giant shoe, and the flowers do not waltz, but rather swing through breezy turns and saucy shimmies and kicks. An enthusiastic ensemble twirls and rolls hula hoops. “Marzipan’’ is a lively romp with polka-dot exercise balls, and “Spanish’’ is accompanied by a vivid backdrop of swirling striped skirts. “Russian’’ effectively trades solo virtuosity for ensemble spirit, and a virile, muscular Marlon Taylor-Wiles upends the gorgeously supple Kseniya Melyukhina in gorgeous overhead lifts in “Arabian.’’ Partnered by Cavalier Joe Gonzalez, Caroline Cohn offers the most poised, accomplished dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy, exhibiting fluttery beats and whip-sharp fouettés. Gonzalez’s solo includes polished turns and buoyant leaps.
Williams’s add-on coda threatens overkill, but it gives Gonzalez a chance to slip from his Cavalier costume into fatigues. When Clarice returns, she is greeted by the return of her soldier father, and that reunion is the production’s most magical and touching surprise.
The original photo credit for this story attributed the wrong photographer. The correct credit is Liza Voll.