During each holiday season, dancers in ballet companies all over the country perform The Nutcracker, while actors revisit the bah-humbug world of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
But this year in Miami, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts is offering a new holiday treat: a Nutcracker that turns the E.T.A. Hoffmann novella that inspired the ballet into a contemporary play with dark and uplifting twists.
Oh, the Arsht and the Broward Center will host Miami City Ballet’s celebrated production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, as always. But this year, the House Theatre of Chicago will be at the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater through Dec. 30 with its made-for-Miami version of a play by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, with music by Kevin O’Donnell.
The House, which earlier brought The Sparrow and Death and Harry Houdini to the Arsht, is already running The Nutcracker, A Magical New Play at its home theater in Chicago. But director Tommy Rapley and the House team put together two separate casts, rehearsing them together in Chicago in late October-early November. The Miami company features a combination of Chicago actors (Josh Odor as Clara’s father and a scary rat, Joey Stone, as the nutcracker Fritz, Joey Steakley as the toy robot Hugo, Sarah Bockel as the doll Phoebe, Zeke Sulkes as the monkey, John Wilson as Drosselmeyer and another scary rat) and Miami performers (Mary Sansone as Clara, Renata Eastlick as Clara’s mother and a rat, and Anne Chamberlain and Mark Della Ventura as ensemble members).
Why a play instead of the world-famous ballet?
“I danced the ballet for 10 years straight, including with the Joffrey Ballet. I have a deep appreciation and reverence for it, but I couldn’t tell you what it is about emotionally,” says director Rapley, who grew up in Lakeland. “It is beautiful to watch. There are moments of pageantry and spectacle. But we wanted to imbue the tale with a story with a capital ‘S.’ We wanted real people, real circumstances, real tragedy.”
To that end, Minton and Klapperich tell the story of bright young Clara and her family. In a dance prelude to the play, they’re busily preparing for Christmas and the homecoming of her soldier-brother Fritz when they get word that he has been killed in combat. A year later, the grieving family faces the holiday with heavy hearts. But the magic contained in The Nutcracker proves transformational and healing.
“We wanted to tell a story about a Christmas that’s very hard. Some of us had lost family members, and it’s hard to experience that traditional time without them,” Minton says. “Audiences tell us that it’s the first time the story has made sense. But the most rewarding feedback is from people who have had a loss, who tell us they weren’t going to put up a tree, but now they are.”
Rapley’s mother is one of those who found healing in The Nutcracker. She changed her mind about skipping Christmas, instead reminiscing with her extended family about each of the ornaments passed down by a beloved aunt who had died over the summer. In a recent preview audience, a young boy and girl watched with excitement, cringing at the scary rats; an older couple rode the play’s emotional roller coaster; and a college student who had lost her brother 18 months earlier wept, though she said afterward she felt the play was a gift.
Sansone and Eastlick, the two South Florida performers with major roles in the production at the Arsht, are thrilled at the chance to work with the House team and the actors from Chicago.
“There’s some heavy stuff, even for adults. But it’s really cool because it is so real. It’s seen through a smart kid’s eyes,” Sansone says. “I’m super humbled and excited. These are fantastic artists. I think it’s going to be wonderful.”
“The House is so warm and encouraging. They really know how to work together as an ensemble, and help you as an actor to tell a story,” Eastlick says. “Even though this isn’t the ballet, it’s incredible. You can hear the characters speaking. They come to life in a whole different way.”