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Mixed nuts

Ballet Rox's Urban Nutcracker
By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  December 19, 2008

COOL SENIORS: The doo-wop oldies are just part of the kaleidoscope of electic entertainment.

Ballet Rox's Urban Nutcracker, the ultimate multicultural Christmas celebration, has become so inclusive, it's almost a blur. The cultural identities are mostly intact, but there's so much going on around them that you can lose track of the reason they're all on the same stage together. Maybe it doesn't matter. The show, at John Hancock Hall through 21 December, is a lot of fun, and it takes its highbrow heritage with a bucket of salt.

Artistic director Anthony Williams and scenarist David Ira Rottenberg have set the traditional Nutcracker story in the home of a present-day extended family, and the Tchaikovsky score is spiked with its Duke Ellington counterpart. The slim plot follows the standard script. After the excitement of the party, Clarice dreams of a mouse invasion, toys coming to life, snowflakes in toe shoes, and then a string of dancing confections, all prompted by the magic of an avuncular Drosselmeyer.

Like other Nutcracker productions, this one has a street full of civilians to set the scene. Swarms of teenagers with their ringleaders strut onto the turf: a team of double-dutch experts, five Irish stepdancers led by Brendan O'Brien, eight tapdancers led by Sean Fielder, and two moonwalking poppers (twins Billy and Bob McClain) who can move each body part separately like mechanical dolls and can make their red satin shirts ripple by — how else? — energizing their skin.

These rowdy clans interact in challenge dances and boogie along with whoever's doing a solo. They make way for a quartet of cool seniors (Ilanga, Christian Scott, Gilbert White, and John Wyche) who sing doo-wop oldies. Amid the throngs, Clarice (Rebecca Paul), her mom (Melodie Jeffery Cassell), and bratty brother Omar (Nolan Jones) meet up with Drosselmeyer and his assistant Mini-Meyer (Michael Shannon and Yo-el Cassell) and invite them home to entertain the family's guests.

The party is hardly less chaotic, even without the rope jumpers and rhythm-dance groups. There's lots of hugging and agitated rushing around. Grandfather (Gilbert White) stands in for an absent dad. Mini-Meyer, a character whose hyperactive syndrome seems to have gotten much worse since the last time I saw the show, keeps the room at a constant buzz. A tipsy aunt (Natalie VanLandingham) pins him down on the sofa with a kiss, but that's the only time his fidgets let up.

Finally I settled down to enjoy the inspired zaniness, like the battle between the picnicking mice and the girl prizefighters on pointe. I appreciated the physicality of the real contact and choreographed acrobatics when the Mouse King (Gary Vaughn) duels with the Nutcracker (Langston Fishburne). And the snowstorm seemed almost restful, with only the dancers whirling, leaping, and stepping smoothly in organized patterns.

In the second act, Clarice meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Autumn Hill Friday night, with partner Philip Ingrassia), whose classical routine incorporates Ellington-esque jazzy shrugs and discreet bounces that she teaches to three young disciples. The "Sweets" divertissements proceed as usual, with local flavorings. My favorite was the four fleshy Spanish ladies, who did a terrific skirt dance to accompany a bland ballerina (Olga Marchenko) in "Ritmo Latino." Rick Vigo led his hula-hoop virtuosos in the "Candy Cane" variation, and Erin Washington and Sean Fielder supervised a bunch of tiny tappers in "Mother Ginger." Breakdancers sparred with Russian folk dancers in "Caviar Caper." Branchette Janelle Gilchrist did campy ballet to Ellington's "Waltz of the Flowers" in swingtime, and six little girls shepherded by Marzipan Meredith Baer bounced in fine precision on blue-and-yellow polka-dot beach balls.

I wouldn't say this Nutcracker features the sustained choreographic challenge that the traditional work can put to its hordes of children. What it does have is energy and enterprise, and heart. After Sugar Plum's farewell, Clarice, asleep on the sofa, is awakened from her dream by her father, who's home in uniform from Iraq — the sweetest present of all.

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