REVIEW: Tony Williams’ ‘Urban Nutcracker’ makes a vivid and engaging return to the stage for its 20th anniversary

The thrill is back. 

For an interactive and engaging show like Urban Nutcracker, experiencing it online last year on its 19th anniversary offered a glimpse into its dazzling style, multi-genre music, and the unique perspective within a classic tale. 

However, sitting in the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre as Urban Nutcracker’s dynamic orchestra traveled down the aisles performing their horn-infused, big band sound on instruments stringed in colorful lights created an authentically immersive experience.  This year marks Urban Nutcracker’s 20th anniversary live onstage, an innovative show that not only pays tribute to Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday tale, but to the beauty and spirit of Boston.

Featuring the City Ballet of Boston, The Brooklyn Ballet, Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex, the Northeast School of Ballet, and Revels, Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker is available for a limited engagement continuing through December 22 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Click here to for more information and for further details about the Tony Williams Dance Center

Click here for an interview with Tony Williams about his dance center and how the Urban Nutcracker began.

Prefaced by festive carols from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole, the enthusiastic crowd was more than ready to experience The Urban Nutcracker live and in person again and from the spontaneous cheers from the crowd, showed no sign of disappointment. 

As the band settles inside a replica of the Hatch Shell above the stage amid Janie Howland’s amazing scenic design, identifiable landmarks such as the CITGO signMassachusetts State House, Green Monster, and Downtown Boston’s Custom House Clock Tower  (which comes alive upon closer examination) are set strategically on Boston’s city skyline.  The orchestra plays above the performers, delivering rich and funky rhythms inspired by a variety of music styles that match the vast array of festive, eye-popping costumes by Dustin Todd Rennels as cultures from around the world take the stage once more.

Ruth Whitney and Ronnie Thomas Photo credit to Peter Paradise

When TchaikovskyDuke Ellington, and David Berger come together for this eclectic score musically directed by Bill Whitney, it takes this timeless tale to the next level.  Urban Nutcracker delivers a modern, sparkling, family-friendly vibe which is depicted in the show’s rich colors as a chic and contemporary apartment with a distinctive tree, glimmering cushions, and large and festive bulbs covering the windows is revealed.

What is particularly noticeable this year is the gathering.  The variety of children and adults dancing and playing with their new toys as a group come together for an amazing photo with a lengthy selfie stick.  The sheer joy of a houseful of children and adults enjoying each other’s company has been something dearly missed.

Selfie stick Photo credit to Peter Paradise

Horn infused jazz, hip hop, and the blues are just a few of the genres explored in this tradition meets contemporary Urban Nutcracker.  It was amazing to watch the adults dance with elements of swing and ballet integrated into their steps.

Urban Nutcracker depicts all the classic scenes from Tchikovsky’s production with an inviting twist featuring a diverse, multi-talented cast.  In a magnificent coat and top hat, Gianni Di Marco has more than one trick up his sleeve as captivating Drosselmeyer.  He not only wows adults and children alike with tricks and presents, but his sweet interactions with Ruby including one point as the duo watch from the balcony provide some of Urban Nutcracker’s most memorable moments.

Drosselmeyer does his magic as children look on. Photo credit to Peter Paradise

Khalid Hill returns and again masters multiple roles including a catchy break dancing, tap and toe tapping routine on the city streets as dancers synchronize beats on trash cans.  Ronnie Thomas is excellent as a wiry soldier doll in bright orange and purple as he bends in incredible shapes around the stage as well in an exciting rat battle as the Nutcracker Prince.

The Snow Queen and King, portrayed by Ruth Bronwen-Whitney and Ronnie Thomas, are sophisticated and elegant gliding in a snow-covered landscape of the Boston Common surrounded by luminous snowflake dancers.  Thomas also delivers a visually-rich and memorable performance in a duet with Ruth Bronwen-Whitney as Arabian dancers.  Spain’s spectacular costumes glitter in a flowing flamenco dance as a bull rider dominates the background while China’s dancers are bursting with color in a spinning fan dance.

Kirsten Glaser leads Spain dance Photo cred to Peter Paradise Michaels.

The Sugar Plum Fairy, performed by Kseniya Melyukhina and Ruth Bronwen-Whitney, has a more traditional look in lilac this year, but nonetheless stands out for a beautiful, upbeat solo and a later performance with Gianni Di Marco during a jazz-infused Nutcracker Suite. 

Kseniya Melyukhina in Urban Nutcracker Photo credit Peter Paradise

Several lighthearted performances return to the stage including the athletic hula hoop dancers in Revere Beach with back flips included, a lively and humorous performance featuring skilled, tap-dancing workmen in hardhats and paint-splotched overalls, but a favorite performance of Urban Nutcracker’s answer to Make Way for Ducklings is endearing and heartwarming featuring Michael Oliver Slayton as a tap dancing cop and an adorable, yellow feathered troupe of ducklings led by Simone Wolfhorst.

Urban Nutcracker still offers something for everyone with a unique twist on a classic while still reminding audiences what is truly important this time of year.  It is a unique and exciting Boston tribute with surprises along the way.

Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker continues through December 22. Click here for more information, tickets, and how to support this organization.

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