Returning to the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre for its 21st season, Tony Williams’s “The Urban Nutcracker” remains a celebratory, playful, and Boston-centric update of the holiday classic.
The show adapts Tchaikovsky’s original story, in which a young girl is whisked away to a variety of countries by her toy Nutcracker doll. But in Williams’s version, she travels not just to Russia, Spain, China, and Arabia, but also to Fort Hill and the Boston Public Garden.
The original “Nutcracker,” at its best, is a joyful combination of dance from around the world. Williams’s version captures that spirit of multicultural celebration by showcasing the diversity within Boston in particular. His choreography combines traditional ballet steps with tap, jazz, flamenco, and hip-hop.
The score, arranged by music directors Bill Whitney and Jay Frigoletto and a team of composers, mixes Tchaikovsky’s original music with the jazzy “The Nutcracker Suite,” recorded by Duke Ellington in the ‘60s, and original hip-hop beats. From a platform above the stage, a band and DJ perform the Ellington and hip-hop sections.
The cast’ features Boston-raised talents, including Khalid Hill, Joe González, and Isiah Beasley, who showcase a mastery of styles ranging from tap to contemporary ballet to hip hop.
But that’s not the only thing that makes this version stand out: The show’s secret weapon is its sense of humor and frequent winking nods to the audience. “The Urban Nutcracker” begins with a dance battle set on the streets of Boston, where Beasley and Hill (also a featured dancer in the new holiday movie “Spirited”) show off a number of memorable break-dancing and tap tricks.
Soon after, we’re at a party at the Williams’s home, and Drosselmeyer (Toby Towson) enters with his trundle of Christmas toys for children, including a toy soldier doll (Henning Washington) who performs a captivating pop-and-lock routine to hip-hop beats.
Among the cast of young performers delighted by Drosselmeyer’s toys is the show’s signature lead “Clarice,” played this year by 12-year-old Zoe Arnold O’Grady.
Mingling with excellent comedic timing among the younger dancers are Clarice’s Aunt Fanny (Haley-Jean Kidwell) and mother, Ms. Williams (Erika Lambe).
Kidwell, in particular, has a vibrant stage presence as she wields a selfie stick to take photos of the children and flirts with Drosselmeyer. A new addition to the cast, Towson dances Drosselmeyer with grandfatherly warmth.
The first act ends with the traditional routine from the Snow Queen (Kanako Saito) and her snowflakes, one of the first act’s highlights. Saito performs with measured strength and impeccable balance as she partners with Joe González in his first of two expressively and skillfully executed roles.
In the second act, Clarice is transported through the magical “Land of Fantasy” (”The Urban Nutcracker” equivalent of the “Land of Sweets”), eventually arriving back in Boston for a series of charming numbers set at Boston landmarks.
Once again, González is a standout in his richly emotive version of the “Arabian” number; he masterfully captures the piece’s sensuality, articulating each movement with somber, lyric gravitas. He pairs here with Kidwell who, in her second role in the show, moves with a sly smoothness.
The second act is full of creative homages to the city of Boston, and adorable children. Clarice travels to Fort Hill to watch kids hop around on bouncy balls and then to the Boston Public Garden, where soloist Victoria Jaenson leads a “petal parade” of ensemble flowers. Before Clarice leaves the garden, a group of children decked out in enormous yellow feathered hats hop out on stage in a nod to the garden’s “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture that melted hearts in the audience.
THE URBAN NUTCRACKER
At the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Saturday, repeats Wednesday-Friday, Dec. 21-23. Tickets starting at $29. https://www.bochcenter.org/events/detail/urbannutcracker2022