Thursday, December 22, 2011

THE MAGIC NUTCRACKER

We have all endured (or at least sat through) more than enough Nutcracker ballets to make one's head spin — and unfortunately, this one will not stop the momentum. THE MAGIC NUTCRACKER (1925) by Jane Kerley (with Tschaikovsky's score edited by Carl Deis, cover artist unknown) takes the bare bones of the story and hones it down to even more bone-chilling simplicity.

The entire thing plays out in a single set, a drawing room, with a — for the moment, anyway — normal sized tree, decorated with toys and candy that look suspiciously like the sort of things that would come to life in a juvenile operetta. Mom and Dad are finishing decorating the room, when Grandpa, hoisting a bag so full of toys that you suspect he robbed a bank to finance it, bursts onstage. It's the usual assortment of things that one might suspect will come to life in a juvenile operetta... but the prize acquisition of the evening is a nutcracker.

Oh, not just any old nutcracker, of course: this one is a magic nutcracker, purchased from an old woman who sat on the sidewalk in the freezing snow, advertising him as something that will "surely bring good luck!" (although one might be tempted to note that it didnt quite work in her case, which makes the advertising altogether suspicious, but anyway...) Grandpa is, of course, delighted that he found something his little granddaughter Marie will like.

But of course, as we all know, that enjoyment wont last long, not with her brother Johnny around who, as he is destined to do in every production, breaks the nutcracker, and Marie is devastated.

MARIE. He was so fine! Now look at him! He's all broken! Grandpa gave him to me! Grandpa gave him to ME! My lovely Nutcracker!

... and so Johnny is sent to bed without dessert and we never see him again. At least, not in this operetta anyway. Grandpa has a good laugh at Marie's emotional attachment to a hunk of wood, and everyone leaves. But Marie sticks around, concerned about her nutcracker. To make him... er, it... feel better, she decides to sing "the Arab cradle song that Nurse used to sing to me." But instead of putting the toy to sleep, she puts head to pillow and crashes out instead...

— only to awaken to find herself now suddenly very, very small, so much so that all the toys and candy on the tree are... wow, human sized. And all the toys are now... gosh, as big as her. A fairy made of candy tells us that Johnny ate her toe, which makes it difficult for her to walk. But knowing that the show must go on, she forces herself to dance like Fonteyn. She's replaced by a Chinese boy :

Me no like hang on tree by hair
Big Mel'can man he tie me there
Me no like
Me no like
Small Chinese have no fun at all
Small Chinese boy have great big fall

Next, a bunch of reed flute fairies, then a battalion of toy soldiers... which then means the appearance of the evil Mouse King, who's killed by Marie's shoe, which ends the curse on the Nutcracker, who reappears as a handsome prince, who immediately falls in love with a woman who's Marie suddenly all grown up, who says yes to being princess of the realm, and the flowers all gather, and everyone sings and dances, and you're thinking maybe it's almost over...

And there's a very brief scene following, with now-back-to-Little Marie still asleep in the doll's bed. Grandpa finds her and picks her up to put her to bed, all the while telling her that yes he'll fix the nutcracker in the morning. They're just about to leave, when Grandpa stops and says to the audience...

GRANDPA (at door) Drat that Nutcracker!

Exit and curtain.

And you sit there looking at the falling curtain and asking yourself, Whoa, wait a minute! "Drat that Nutcracker"? What was that all about? I have no doubt it was meant to be a shocker ending, but... it doesnt make any kind of sense.

I guess you had to be there.

Okay, to the music. Overall, not a bad transcription of themes from the Nutcracker. The Overture becomes a bit of an operatic scene, that takes us all the way to Johnny's breaking the toy. The rest are mostly solo and duo opportunities, but, with the exception of the now-cringe-worthy Chinese song, they're done with a more or less light touch. There's nothing inherently complicated about any of the voice work, except that it has some demanding little trills and the occasional surprising rhythm sequence. There's very little parts work since this was probably meant as unison work for the lower grades.

What does make this interesting, though, are the substantial production notes that accompany the script. Apparently Ms. Kerley produced this herself many times and gives us many pointers about how to make the costumes and the scenery. One item that I'm sure raised a few materal eyebrows is the costume for the wind fairy, which is accomplished with a long, straight slip of flesh-coloured gauze. She wears a slight jacket over that, also of gauze, but I'm wondering how many mothers in 1925 told little Janey's teacher, "No way am I allowing my child onstage to look like a hooker!" Probably a lot.

Also, please note: "The fattest children are to be dressed as men of brown gingerbread." That no doubt left its own share of emotional holiday scars.

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