The Tacoma City Ballet’s extended version of “The Nutcracker,” with a prologue (“The Tale of the Hard Nut”) unveiled last year, and offers just as much eye-candy this year, with sparkling costumes, beautiful vintage sets, tight staging and some fine guest dancers. But the biggest change this year was also slightly disappointing. For the first time in over a decade, the Tacoma Symphony once again played the famous Tchaikovsky score in the Pantages pit, and while some things improved musically, others got worse.
Dancing-wise, TCB’s “Nutcracker” — Tacoma’s most elaborate — is always a mix of young students and company dancers with older, more polished guests in lead roles. The choreography is simple, but always well-rehearsed. This year featured a company very secure in the Snow and Flower scenes, a lively party scene with Travis Goldman as a gregarious Drosselmeyer and Salvatore Lucente as the bumbling King/Father. There also were a number of well-executed minor solos: Audrey Pentimonti as the prologue’s perfect Princess Pirlipat (first cast), Carolynne Guinup as its eager Jester (and Mrs. Tomcat), a sassy but somewhat wild Spanish dancer (Vorece Miller) and an energetic Alex Koleber as the Soldier Doll (and various others).
More than the usual number of guests this year — mostly TCB teachers or former Spectrum dancers —raised the overall quality of the dancing to something you might see in Seattle: an intense, lithe Shadou Mintrone as the Arabian, Danielle Wester and Joel Myers as very believably jerky Dolls, Myers again as a poised Cavalier, Kate Monty icily regal as the Snow Queen and Kyle Johnson, graceful and acting with conviction as the Nutcracker Prince.
But while Carolynne Guinup is a perfect actor for character roles like the Jester, her Sugar Plum Fairy (though lovely in pirouettes) needed more ramrod-spine authority to balance Myers’ Cavalier.
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The whole production moved through the vintage pink trompe-l’oeil scenery with polish, including the very human touches that set Tacoma apart from the Pacific Northwest Ballet: burly Warren Crain as Mother Ginger, an adorable set of Polichinelles all jumping out of time, a party scene where Fritz (Kellen Gonsalves) acts like a mischievous little boy rather than a perfectly-trained ballet student.
But in the pit, things were more disappointing. Despite a rich string sound and lilting tempi from conductor Sarah Ioannides, there were far too many missed notes (horn, clarinet), messy entrances, out-of-tune violins and weak cellos. To boot, the amplification only served to make this live orchestra (Tacoma’s only such “Nutcracker”) sound exactly like a recording — to the extent that the audience chatted enthusiastically all the way through the overture.
Hopefully these were just opening night teething problems, because Tacoma City Ballet’s mix of polished guests, local students and original prologue, in the ornate Pantages, give its “Nutcracker” a magic ballet-goers still will love.