Review – The Klezmer Nutcracker – Vital Theater Company, New York City

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On Monday night three of us went to the Vital Theater company to see the Klezmer Nutcracker. It was an amazingly packed theater – while it seats about 100, there were extra kids in laps and even one person sent to sit in the lighting booth! What had the crowd a-hopping? It was a “winter holiday” play that for once was NOT about Christmas – not about Santa, not about Scrooge, not about little drummer boys – it was about a Jewish family and THEIR traditions, and based on the reactions of the audience, they were as pleased to see representations of themselves and their lives on stage as I am when I get a real “American meal” in London (such as Vietnamese soup that tastes like it did back home).

What it is NOT is “a Jewish retelling of the Nutcracker,” even though it follows some of the themes of that story (the family party, the conflict between the brother and sister) and has an occasional background of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” done Klezmer style (by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra) and a bit of dancing. The story it’s based on is Ellen Kushner’s Golden Dreidel, and the plot (of the play) is like this: a pre-teen girl (Sara, performed by Danielle Strauss) and her family are gathered for Hanukkah. A wild auntie blows in (played by Ellen Kushner) and gives her a golden dreidel as a Hanukkah present, explaining a bit of its symbolism. Sara and her brother fight over it, and it breaks … the TV screen, landing all of the kids in hot water.

This is where things get odd. Sara has been yearning for magic and adventure, and the Dreidel appears to have a key to both, transporting her to another land where she is quickly saddled with a mission and a companion or two. At this point I started feeling like the play was a bit of a middle ground between Nilsson’s “The Point” and Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” – there was a message or two in the show, but it was being sent out in a fun way that didn’t impede the story.

It’s a little hard for me to change gears from reviewing hardcore theater like August: Osage County to a smallish production done on a shoestring budget like this one, so I’ll try to get into the right mindset: it was a cute show that both the adults and the kids in the audience got a real kick out of, with lots of silly jokes in it, perfectly aimed at 6-12 year olds but not boring for grownups.

Me, I liked the puppets and loved the peacock dance (also a holdover from the original Nutcracker), but didn’t feel like the actual dancing added much to the show; fortunately there wasn’t too much of it even though it was far more competently executed than I expected. I thought the acting was okay, but more importantly the rapport created between the actors and the audience was really very good: the kids were really listening and got very involved in the bits where participation was asked for. And at the end, when people were asked to sing along to a Hanukkah song, they really got into it, and I thought, wow, look, it’s their songs, they’re finally at a show where it’s representing what they are doing this time of the year, and that has really got to feel good. (I of course didn’t know the songs, but I didn’t mind – I get the songs I know all of the time.) So while the show isn’t likely to hit the list of Tony nominees, I think there’s a lot of people out there who would really enjoy it. Me, it was an hour, I got to enjoy some theater magic (like the bits where Sara and “The Fool” (Dan J Gordon) were swimming a sea), listen to some bad jokes, and hear some new music – so I think it was over all a good night out. Add a scoop of gelato from Grom (right across the street) and you have a very nice night out

(This show was for the 7 PM performance on the night of Monday, December 22nd, 2008.)

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