For 17 years, Tony Williams’s “Urban Nutcracker” has offered a holiday arts tradition reflecting the rich multicultural diversity of Boston. The show transforms the traditional ballet story, with its patina of Victorian gentility, into a more relatable, livelier, and decidedly funnier contemporary take with a wide variety of dance styles performed by kids and adults of all sizes, colors, ages, and abilities. Understandably a little raw and messy, this homespun charmer with a lot of heart is a terrific way for families to kick-start the holiday spirit — not just with a fun outing, but with a takeaway reflecting the true meaning of the season.
Williams’s streamlined narrative resonates with today’s culture, starting with Ramiro Vaughan’s pre-curtain dance/rap asking, “Why is it hard to love but easy to hate?” then urging us to remember, “You always have a voice.” Williams centers “Urban Nutcracker” on Clarice (a poised, assured Iris Goldson in Sunday’s matinee) a young Boston girl whose father is away in military service. The opening street scene, back-dropped by iconic landmarks — the Citgo sign, the State House dome, the Custom House clock — is quickly populated with doo-wop singers, hip-hop dancers, enthusiastic tappers, and an onstage bass/percussion trio. The pivotal, slightly comical figure of Drosselmeyer (a dandyish Gianni DiMarco in flamboyant cape and red top hat) appears with a trunk of toys and tricks that don’t always work.
The party scene features some cute touches — a selfie stick group photo, a chorus of “ooh, ahh” as the tree is lit, Vaughan’s Soldier Doll in a little pop-and-lock routine. The kids are adorable, and the adult party-goers impressively show off dance styles ranging from ballet to swing, with some eye-popping tumbling thrown in. The party goes on a little long, and the humor gets pretty cheesy, but the actual cheese comes out after Clarice falls asleep with her Nutcracker doll. The mice come out to picnic in the living room until soldiers arrive — en pointe and wearing boxing gloves — to vanquish them with long-lined kicks, spins, and punches. When Drosselmeyer’s magic whisks Clarice off to the Boston Common, the Snow Queen (Kirsten Glaser) and Snow King (Dylan Contreras) usher in a lovely, eye-catching sequence of dancing snowflakes that is well-crafted and skillfully danced.
Williams gets really creative in Act II’s showcase of character dances, adeptly integrating Clarice and Drosselmeyer into the action. There are hula hoopers, kids on bouncy balls, briefcase-wielding tappers, and some dazzlingly costumed Chinese Dragons. A spunky, articulate Mariana Zschoerper is the centerpiece of a flashy flamenco number, and the sensuous Arabian dance is nicely staged with attendants for the central couple.
For “Waltz of the Flowers,” Williams goes gaudy and playful, one of the few times choosing Duke Ellington’s arrangement over Tchaikovsky’s original score doesn’t work, missing an opportunity for some needed lyricism. Kseniya Melyukhina, a charismatic, accomplished Sugar Plum Fairy, offers the production’s most virtuosic dancing. Though her partnered choreography is often sluggish and staid, her opening solo is terrific, with lofty arabesques and crisp footwork sidling into jazzy shimmies and prances.
Williams cleverly morphs the scene back to Clarice’s house, where she wakes up in time for her father’s return home, a poignant reunion that reminds us the greatest gift is the people we love and who love us in return.
Presented by Tony Williams Dance Center. At John Hancock Hall, through Dec. 28. Tickets $25-$85. 888-596-1027, www.urbannutcracker.comKaren Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.