Nutcracker is back! — that family-friendly affair.
This year, the Mayor(s) stick(s) to his (their) wife.
If you wish to know the music and the chronology of events, please go to “Archives” and look for “Nutcracker 2016”. This round, I skip these as far as possible. I’ll type the word “review” here because Google and shameless.
(Pictured in banner: Uchida Chihiro)
The above shows Chihiro … as…the…Snow Queen? I don’t know what the costume is.
Cast lists are up and they show interesting stuff. Most folk are in the same roles, I think. Some of the previous year’s Claras are now dancing as Clara’s dolls. Fritz is back, and taller than all the Maries now — but still as entertaining and expressive a Fritz as ever. New roles – Harlequins, etc. Personally, I rather like the Harlequins and I hope their scene hangs around.
Act 1 – The Shops
When the show starts, we see the usual setting of the shops. Though the shopkeeper is called Mr Sung, his shop is not named after him. I suppose “Sung” is a pun on 商人 (shang ren, or businessman). Left to right, we see Mr Sung’s shop, the bank, the jewellery shop, the dress shop, and the candy shop, which I don’t recall being there before. It’s a good place for the kids to hang out. The jewellery shop window now has a selection of five necklaces, while the dress shop window has been jazzed up – it’s no longer merely a milliner’s, for there’s a grey suit on the left and a dress and hat on the right.
The opening has much of the same stuff as last year’s – the shopkeeper sweeping somebody’s feet by mistake, Mrs Nightingale (Clara’s mother, played by Ruth Austin) getting annoyed with what the butler has purchased and praising the maid (Leane Lim), Marie getting distracted by jewellery (and a necklace draped round her neck, which her mother makes her return), Marie noticing Drosselmayer’s nephew Kristian as he strides by, the ladies noticing the Russian ballerinas, the Russian ballerinas trying to get the soldiers’ attention, etc.
It’s interesting to see how different people adapt to the situations (see later: the party scene and the 2 Messrs. Nightingale, and the butlers). As the Banker and Mayor respectively, Shan Del Vecchio and Nazer Salgado approach each other as if they’re going to shake hands politely, then the Mayor has this oh, what the heck grin and throws his arms wide open, and Banker throws his arms open and they embrace and exchange European-style air kisses, haha. Whereas Banker Peter Allen and Mayor Jason Carter shake hands, like proper polite gentlemen.
As the street fills with people, including the Banker’s family, Banker Shan Del Vecchio peers out round the bank door like a cheeky child, spots his wife (Chua Bi Ru) near the dress shop, and creeps up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders to give her a pleasant surprise. She then points out the hat and dress and asks his opinion, and he seems quite favourable to the purchase (smart move #1 – say yes to the dress). Their kids come up with bags of sweets (unpaid for! shocking) from their raid of the candy store; and the Banker’s wife disapproves and so does he, and they accompany the kids to return the candy (smart move #2 – back up your wife). Banker Peter Allen hails his wife from afar, they wave to each other and he goes up to her, she clings to his arm, points to the dress. He is a man who knows how much these things cost, and he looks slightly doubtful about whether the dress will work (consistent in character — refer to party scene later) – but fortunately, they are interrupted by their kids and he tells the kids to return the candy, and he goes back to work.
Mr Nightingale has learnt his lesson from last year — he remembers the shocking cost of the necklace he presented his wife. What happens next was first most evident when Nakamura Kenya played Mr Nightingale. After greeting his family friend Drosselmayer, Mr Nightingale ignores Drosselmayer (who tried, in vain, to call him back) and heads for the Bank, where he consults the Banker on his bank balances before he emerges and makes a beeline for the jewellers’, where he tries to get the Ambassador to understand exactly which necklace he’d like. #financialprudence
A subsequent viewing(s) proved that both Messrs. Nightingale now exercise such laudable caution with their wallets and their next encounter with the Banker involves shaking his hand good-day and not disappearing into the Bank with him for a consultation on healthy finances.
Etienne Ferrere is, as always, a hoot as the slightly officious jeweler-Ambassador. Miura Takeaki is hilarious as an Ambassador who is snootily pleased with Mr Nightingale’s good, expensive tastes. Every nod, flick of the hand or shrug of the shoulder from these two jewellers is just right. The jeweller-Ambassador is also a savvy and charming businessman, having already persuaded Marie to consider one of his necklaces. You will also see Mrs Tang (Mrs Nightingale’s mother, played by Sun Honglei) hinting to Mr Tang (Mr Janek Schergen) that she should get a necklace, but he demurs.
The soldiers and the Russian ballerinas always draw stifled laughter from the audience – at how readily they are lured into the shop, how there’s always one unfortunate soldier left behind (e.g. Timothy Ng, head hanging dejectedly and in a sulky temper until he decides to plunge into the shop, too; or Justin Zee, whose soldier then remains #foreveralone as he has failed to scoop up a ballerina, until much later in the party), how there’s always one soldier who is almost fooled into giving all his money to a ballerina girl (Jason Carter, pointing at the bank from which they can get a loan, until Reece Hudson drags him away; Justin Zee, who has to be whisked away so fast he does a turn) or, on one night, one soldier who manages to have all the girls hanging on his arm (Yorozu Kensuke).
Other little new details: the Mayor’s wife (who runs the dress shop) locates a missing child and returns her to the Banker’s wife, who scolds her; Ma Ni, as Mrs Nightingale’s sister Mrs Ching on Nakahama Akira’s Sugarplum night, seems more intrigued than offended by the sight of the Russian ballerinas; and when the music builds up, one of the Russian ballerinas bumps into the Banker and this time, his knee is hurt. Interestingly, the build up to that musical moment is different from the very first time I saw it (Elaine Heng), because it’s a lot more bars of music. Previously, the ballerinas seemed taken with quite how handsome the Banker was, and now they just apologise and run off.
And the ending, of course, is different. It used to be the milliner / Mayor’s wife (Yatsushiro Marina) all by her lonesome self, suddenly remembering that she had forgotten to lock the door, and then going back to lock it before hurrying off. Even in 2013 – I remember the milliner leaving the stage last as the lights dimmed, and there was a sort of suggestion of a dusk and falling snow, in that solitary ending. Now the ending is a little merrier and busier – just as the milliner is leaving the shop, the shopkeeper (Huo Liang / Miura Takeaki) and his wife pass the dress shop and his wife (Xu Lei Ting) tugs on his arm and wants to stop for a look, but they have a party to get to, and he persuades her to follow him instead.
Act 1 – The Party
This will be exceedingly long because I like remembering the details. They’re all lavishly funny.
Entrez Ruth Austin as Mrs Nightingale, the glamorous lady whose Christmas party is the Event of the Year. You just know that when the doors are flung open, she will be a model of absolute gorgeous calm, welcoming her guests into her house. How does she do it, everyone marvels when they see her breezing about company, setting everyone at ease. It’s not liquid courage, unlike last year’s liquor-lovin’ Mrs Nightingale, that’s for sure.
Hence, the opening, the pre-party, is important – it gives us a glimpse of the hard work behind the scenes. Mrs Nightingale, the proverbial swan who looks calm above water but who paddles hard beneath the surface, puts the finishing touches to everything and holds the household together. Without her, the correct groceries would not have been purchased; Marie would still be sitting with her feet up on the sofa, deep in her book (notice that Akira and Li Jie play more docile daughters than previously seen, to this motherly, fussing Mrs Nightingale), Fritz would still be slumped over in his chair, and Clara…she’s the model of perfection, so Mrs Nightingale has one less thing to worry about.
Without her, Mr Nightingale cannot even fix the failing button on his shirtsleeve, and she disappears up the stairs with him, heralding the entrance of the butler.
The butler! On some occasions, we have Peter Allen trotting in as a very young butler being as butler-ly as possible. He does not pick a quarrel or kick up a fuss – he may have a soft spot for the children, for when Fritz rearranges the dishes on the table, he merely tut-tuts and resets them in resignation.
Jerry Wan Jiajing plays a different butler, one who almost positively hates the job, the noise and the fuss. He’s peevish and irritable, and he even snaps at Young Master Fritz for messing with the food on the table, and directs Fritz to sit down. Evidently, he has a bone to pick with Mr Nightingale, and vice-versa – nothing he does is right on Saturday night – he’s tardy and needs to be chivvied into welcoming the guests, at which he rolls his eyes; he swings in late with a tray of glasses (a point against him in Mr Nightingale’s eyes, and this is probably made worse by the fact that Mr Nightingale ends up without a glass, because his delighted guests e.g. Mrs Sung and his wife cut in before him); he can’t even catch a nut from a nutcracker (unlike the other butler).
This sets the stage for explaining why Fritz is able to keep disrupting the party with his trumpet. ‘Tis the butler’s duty, after all, to keep the trumpet away, as we’ll see.
I love it when the Russian ballerinas enter. For Akira’s performances, Minegishi Kana, May Yen Cheah and Beatrice Castaneda float in like delicate nightingales on a wing, to light fluttery music. Always, the last 2 Russian ballerinas cling to the Ambassador’s arms right after they enter.
The Russian ballerinas are amongst the most under-appreciated performers of the night. The other performer who doesn’t usually get any applause is the Snow King, because right after his solo, the gorgeous snowflakes drift in, and no one wants to interrupt the performance.
I didn’t enjoy the Russian ballerinas’ dance as much previously, because it took me by surprise, especially with the music. But it’s like a pleasant entrée and I do enjoy it now, not least because it gives us room to watch each individual dancer take her turn.
Tanaka Nanase, Yeo Chan Yee and Kwok Min Yi are Chihiro’s proud Russian ballerinas, chins lifted high as they enter; and they turn in a brilliantly steady performance – look at Yeo Chan Yee’s clean landings from pirouettes, for instance. For Li Jie’s performances, Elaine Heng and Suzuki Mai and Ma Ni are the ballerinas – Elaine Heng makes it look effortless as always, lovely lines; and Suzuki Mai has that graceful neat port de bras, and Ma Ni has a very pretty dancing style – and it’s good to see them put front and centre. Akira’s Russian ballerinas are mentioned above – Kana has a delicate dancing style (in the flick of the hands and arch of the arm), May Yen Cheah carries the dancing well as the centre of the trio, and Beatrice – now we take our two seconds out in case I forget to say this later during Candyland.
Beatrice Castaneda, in this season’s Nutcracker, stood out for her portrayal of the roles as Russian ballerina and Arabian. She was acting out the Russian and Arabian dance roles for us — smizing, as they say in America’s Next Top Model, smiling with the eyes — and that immediately connected with this audience member, who sat up. It felt as if she were the character – not merely a good dancer, but also the Russian ballerina, and the Arabian dancer, engaging the audience.
I think I need to jump back in time slightly, to the part where we see Drosselmayer’s nephew Kristian pluck up the courage to approach Marie. They dance a little – and then Mr Nightingale spots them.
Messrs. Nightingale-Justin & Nightingale-Kenya (the latter playing the father to Li Jie’s Marie) are an interesting pair. Drawn-on moustaches and beards are the rage this season, sported by everyone from the Ambassador(s) to most of the Arabian dancers (bar Huo Liang), but Mr N. Kenya wears pays homage to the Movember movement with a tiny but distinct paste-on moustache.
Mr N. Justin is quite evidently disturbed – good grief, who is this young man to whom his daughter is obviously attracted? He must put a stop to this at once! He promptly pops up between the two and firmly separates them, then takes Kristian aside for a getting-to-know-you session, in good ol’ intimidating dad fashion.
Mr N. Kenya, on the other hand, is a more reserved and stoic fellow, who keeps his feelings in check. He politely clears his throat in dismay and cautious embarrassment and turns to his wife a few times, as if to say cough cough, is that not our daughter? Perhaps I shall have a word with them? Have you discussed such matters with her–? I suppose – I shall have to intervene, yes, I shall and then he approaches them and appears to clear his throat again in polite dismay before courteously, but firmly, placing his hands on their arms to separate them. Then he takes Kristian aside politely and speaks to him man-to-man, trusting in his maturity, which is no doubt even more dreadful and awkward for Kristian, and worse still, he then gets to know Kristian’s subordinates, and speaks to them in turn – after all, there’s no better way to understand a man’s intentions and heart than to speak to his underlings!
You can’t help but wonder …
And when a giant cake arrives on the scene later and all the children surround the poor maid carrying it and clamour to grab a piece of it while she attempts to hold it high above their heads, Mr N. Justin wades in to ensure the kids don’t ruin the cake and the party, and that they mind their manners. Mr N. Kenya seems about to step in, but decides that they are just being playful children (such foreign creatures), the cake is in no danger, and in any case, he is a reserved fellow who does not slap away pesky children’s hands. Instead, he hangs back and observes their good cheer from a distance.
When it comes to discipline, Mr N. Justin is a tall figure of wrath when Fritz runs off with Clara’s Nutcracker, and that is why Fritz caves and hands over the trumpet. When the children with trumpets persist in interrupting the little girls’ doll dance with their trumpet-playing, he is furious. (Overheard from a female audience member, when the little girls danced: So cute!!) Mr N. Kenya’s manner runs more towards sternness – but when Fritz stubbornly refuses to hand over the Nutcracker, he asserts his iron will and papa psychology, willing his son into remembering his manners.
Speaking of the trumpets, we get to clear up the mystery of how the trumpets get back to the kids, especially Fritz, when they were so obviously a nuisance to begin with and Fritz’s was even confiscated. Butler Peter Allen has a soft spot for the kids, and he tells Fritz he has one more chance, and he passes the trumpet back to Fritz; and he gullibly allows Fritz to have the trumpet again later (second chance). Butler Jerry Wan, on the other hand, returns Fritz’s trumpet with only a little pleading from Fritz – the party can be ruined for all he cares, and in case you’d like to know, nope, he doesn’t care–he’s so over this party right now, especially when Mr N. Justin scolds him for letting the trumpet out of his grasp.
The unveiling of the necklace reveals another surprise in dynamics. Mr Nightingale claps his hands to get everyone’s attention. He has a wonderful surprise – and for some reason, his sister-in-law, Mrs Ching, thinks she’s part of it, and she goes up to him in delight, or stands in her sister’s way. Mr N. Justin gently indicates that she’s not the star here, and turns to his glorious pillar of support, stalwart and bulwark in every storm, Mrs Nightingale, who so deserves this necklace she’s about to get.
Where Mr N. Kenya is simply polite to Mrs Ching when letting her down (barely a glance at her, so she gets no wrong ideas), Mr N. Justin is ever the gentleman – which is perfectly fine, but you do wonder why he’s been giving her air kisses on both cheeks when she enters on Thursday night, and a very loud air smooch and embrace when she leaves. This time round, you start to understand Mrs Ching – perhaps she has always been envious of her sister for having netted a very wealthy, very handsome husband who loves his wife very deeply — which explains her vying for their parents’ attention (though not why she would plant herself in the path of Mr Nightingale…). #afamilyfriendlyaffair
In any case, as we all know, Mrs Ching finds her own happiness with the Ambassador-jeweller, who is rather taken with her, and even spins her into his arms at the end of Saturday night (he doesn’t leave with her, but there’s a suggestion of lunch tomorrow, no doubt).
There are other little funny moments in the background.
Kristian tries to dance with Marie again at one point in time, but they are interrupted by her grandparents. One of the soldiers (Reece Hudson) makes the most of the night, draining an entire bottle and even turning his glass upside down to prove to the butler Peter Allen that he should hurry up with another round of drinks. In the background, the Mayor and Ambassador may have discovered a pair of lovely chairs which they proceed to roll about in, while discussing the nature of a Pocky stick and whether it should be placed in a cocktail glass.
The necklace also sparks off reactions from the crowd. The Mayor (Nazer Salgado) promptly orders not one, but two, necklaces for his lovely wife Marina (who stands by quietly) — no one is going to be better-dressed than his wife, and he is a wise man who understands that #happywifehappylife. The Banker (as played by Peter Allen), who was not terribly keen on his wife getting a new, expensive dress and hat, has yet to learn this life motto. He is cornered by his wife (Chua Bi Ru), who points out that he’s not ever gifted her anything as fine and glittery, and she’d like a necklace too, and the Banker tries to persuade her to consider earrings instead, believing them to be much cheaper. This tactic fails and eventually, she marches across the room to the Ambassador, trailed by the Banker. Eventually, the Banker agrees to buy her jewellery, and suddenly, his wife is all beautiful smiles again, and he realises that he is much happier than he was 5 minutes ago, because #happywifehappylife
A small gesture I did like: when the Nutcracker is thought to have been broken by Fritz, Marie kisses her fingers and presses them to his forehead, to heal the Nutcracker, and presents it back to her little sister. One of the Maries also demonstrates that he’s still fine by working his arm and jaw.
One more note before we turn to Rats. We’ve talked before about living life on the edge and dancing dangerously close to the fringes of the music. On Saturday night, Kristian appeared to dance rather close to the edge — he looped his arm through a startled Marie’s arm almost on the beat of the music itself, and they did a little turn on the spot; he set aside Marie’s book and invited her to stand to watch the grand Soldier Dance so close to the opening notes that he leapt forward from the sofa (some Kristians do this early enough to allow Marie two breaths to stand, and to step forward). This made for heart-stopping action. Other heart-stopping action includes getting shawls and coats on every guest as they exit. What if they don’t manage to make it out in time before the music changes? Heart in mouth.
Act 1: Rats!
As Marie follows her family up the stairs, audience members at the back start to murmur, for they can see a figure hiding behind the sofa. Right on the mark, a Big Mouse pops its head above the sofa and clambers over, only to be joined by two others, squeezing onto the sofa together, arms slung round the back of the sofa, one leg dangling lazily over the side. It’s their party now.
The Big Mice are a Stroke of Genius, and may they reign forever. They are a hoot . One of them lounges about on the sofa, discovers the Nutcracker and holds it to the light to examine it, before proceeding to sayang (pamper?) it, rocking it in his arms, then clutching it close to him as he lies down. The other two lift off the top of a giant present next to the sofa, and start hoisting a seemingly endless procession of small rats out of the box, which made the audience laugh.
Then the mice pop down the stairs and peer about them. The mice and small rats gather in the front, then one set of them attacks the presents.
They hear a noise and start to dash offstage, just as Clara goes down the stairs, having heard them. It’s quite a sight, so many life-size small rats and mice rushing offstage, and you can see why she’s terrified. The last three small rats leap into the arms of the Big Mice, and are borne off in a hurry – another oddly humorous sight, but a nice touch that explains why the Big Mice disappear too, when they could so easily make off with everything else in the room.
All other matters follow the script we know and love.
I got a lump in my throat listening to the music where the soldiers enter to help fight the rats and mice. See the video below, which sounds amazing. Strangely, the tears begin from the scene from 28:57 below onwards where the tree grows and Clara is being comforted by Drosselmayer. Then 29:47 is the moment the music becomes more military in tone (listen to the repeated notes, and then the progressive brass). Look at the animated expressions and conducting! Such music. The opening is great, too.
30:19 to 20 leads us up to the clash of cymbals and it sounds triumphant because back-up has arrived, but it is also the most dreadful music, in a sense, because the soldiers are off to war… And what grand and magnificent soldiers they are, running in and then making a flying side leap and landing neatly in a row. These are the soldiers from the party. 30:52, heralded by increasingly loud trumpets, brings us another 2 soldiers, who land perfectly in front of their compatriots and turn to march smartly between the row behind them, and march out again. Marvellous, and moving. Ivan Koh is a good addition to the Soldiers. 31:06 sees them all turn, rise on one toe and lift one straight leg up behind – graceful long lines, all. Little jumps from them as well, and such orderly marching up to 31:26. Here we are to serve and protect you, they are saying to Clara, who should have full confidence in them…until the Rat King arrives.
It’s all very magical. Please do listen – you’ll find you can’t help but watch the video, too.
The audience always laughs when one little mouse tricks one of the soldiers and steals his rifle (they’re quite cute after all! says Reece Hudson’s soldier to his peers, despite Etienne the Nutcracker Prince shaking his head sternly; and Kensuke is taken in on another night, and Shan Del Vecchio as well, both greeting the mouse with wide smiles). After a tug-of-war with the mouse, the soldier gets his rifle back, in time for him to raise it above his head and join his friends in leaping high.
Right, so we have the popular villain of our times, the Rat King. Dramatic flourishes from Timothy Ng and Reece Hudson.
When the Rat King (tiny mice and rats behind him, Big Mice cheering away from the safety of the sofa) encounters the soldiers, marching out in absolute synchrony, rifles at the ready, he decides to retreat, which is always a funny sight. Twice, Rat King Timothy Ng starts walking backwards slowly, but each time, his mice and rats push him forward. Rat King Reece Hudson obviously has second thoughts when he sees the crowd of soldiers and whips right round, as if he’s a gentleman who’s decided he’s got another really important appointment on and he’ll be back another day, thank you very much; and when he’s pushed to face the soldiers, he looks like omg, no no no and he turns around and tries to escape again.
But when the Rat King gets down to business, the soldiers are disposed of quickly by the Rat King. For he hath a sword, which he uses to knock them aside by slicing at their rifles. Then the rats clamber onto the soldiers’ backs and rush them away, offstage.
If there’s enough time, the Rat King (Reece Hudson) challenges the Nutcracker Prince to a fistfight and passes his sword to a little rat, so the Nutcracker hands his rifle to Drosselmayer. If there’s no time, they waste no time in putting their weapons aside and indulging in a little mano a mano time. My favourite pose of all time during the battle follows, where they raise one imposing arm before their faces and kick out strongly with one foot – basically a challenge to fight, so graceful and strong and scary. Sometimes you feel the Rat King is almost mocking the Nutcracker Prince. Oh, he’s the Mouse King, says the booklet. Ah well.
When Timothy Ng is the Rat King, the Nutcracker Prince and Rat King then take turns supporting the other, who makes a large leap in the air, his legs cartwheeling and his torso nearly horizontal to the ground. When Reece Hudson is the Rat King, the Nutcracker Prince raises the Rat King high in the air and whirls about 360 degrees twice.
When the Nutcracker Prince has the Rat King down on the ground and is about to strike with the sword, the Rat King thrashes about a fair bit and even tries to get up and kicks his legs up, but he’s stabbed and then the curtain goes down behind the main characters, and the rats and mice and Three Big Mice arrive. Now we see why it’s vital they are involved – previously, a ton of little mice had to carry the Rat King away and that had to be hard on all involved. Now the three Big Mice can do the job properly – except the one at the feet drops his feet with a loud clatter, and the kids in the audience giggle, especially on Friday night, when the front row erupts into long and loud laughter, even as the three Big Mice manage to haul the Rat King away at last.
One of the Big Mice is Marcus Ong, who’s not actually with Singapore Dance Theatre. He’s with SDT’s Ballet Associates Course, and I think he is from the School of the Arts as well.
This seems a safe place to stop before we plunge into the dancing. Exeunt, chased by a snowflake.