By Kay Kipling
When I first heard that the Sarasota Ballet was going to produce its very own brand-new production of The Nutcracker, set in the 1930s and with a Ringling Circus theme, I had no doubt that the choreography (by Matthew Hart) would be strong, that the costumes and sets (by Peter Docherty) would be eye-catching, and that the dancers of the ballet would impress. What I wondered was how the central conceit—of having young Clara meet up with John Ringling on a visit to New York City and then “run away” to the winter quarters of the circus here in Sarasota—would work.
Turns out, pretty well, for the most part. With Ringling (David Tlaiye) stepping in for the usual toymaker/magician Drosselmeyer, nephew John Ringling North (Logan Learned) for the Nutcracker Prince, and John’s late, beloved wife, Mable (Victoria Hulland) descending from heaven on a Ziegfeld-esque crescent moon, it follows naturally enough that Clara (the enchanting Sara Sardelli), who’s accompanied by her troublemaking brother Fritz (Pedro Pupa) and their parents during a winter holiday stay at a luxury hotel, would end up fascinated by the circus life. (It doesn’t hurt that this John and Mable are considerably younger, fitter and more attractive than the originals seem to be in their photos. But hey, what’s a Nutcracker without some fantasy?)
Hart has carried his reimagined story along with the help of some spectacular production visuals. Gotta love seeing those mice in the Act I battle coming on like Prohibition-era gangsters, complete with the Mouse King’s Mole (or moll), the Manhattan populated by myriad hotel guests and workers (especially the flouncy, put-upon manager, played by Jamie Carter) and those beautiful snowflake costumes at the end.
But for circus lovers, Act II really delivers the goods, since Hart gets to take the piece’s specialty dances and retool them with circus imagery and stars, from zebras to wild cats to clowns to acrobats, tightrope walkers and a cleverly designed elephant. After all the fun of that, we get a rather touching Waltz of the Roses, as John and Mable (whose famous Rose Garden still exists on the grounds of the Ringling Museum today) dance out their love. And let’s not forget Kate Honea and Ricardo Graziano as “Sugar” and her Prince—a much-applauded pas de deux at Friday’s opening night performance—and the essential role played by the Sarasota Orchestra in bringing live music to the production.
If there is any criticism to be made of John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker, it might be that by the end of the evening I felt a little overstuffed—as if there were too much spectacle, color and pageantry for me to fully take in. That shouldn’t be a problem for any audience member who hasn’t already put in a full day’s work and indulged in a hearty dinner beforehand, though.
This year’s Sarasota performances are over, but you can bet we’ll see this production here again. And in the meantime, you can travel up to Clearwater for performances at Ruth Eckerd Hall, set for Dec. 21 and 22. Call (727) 791-7400 to see if tickets remain.