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Whidbey Dance Theatre's 'Nutcracker' reviewed

"PHOTO: Faerie Queen Kyra Barnholt dances among the Merfolk in the Forest of Magical Dreams during Sunday’s performance of “The Nutcracker” at the South Whidbey High School auditorium.Matt Johnson/staff photoThe Nutcracker ballet concludes this weekend at the South Whidbey High School Auditorium: Dec. 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 11 and 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 adults, $10 seniors and age 18 and under; special matinee price, $5 ages 13 and under. Call 221-8268 for reservations.South Whidbey is truly spoiled.This holiday season, there is no reason to leave the island to watch a production of “The Nutcracker” in Seattle, Portland, or any other major city. Why? Because no “Nutcracker” could possibly be better than the one being performed this week by the Whidbey Dance Theatre.Last weekend, South Whidbey’s “Nutcracker” took the stage for the first time at the South Whidbey High School Auditorium for four shows in front of packed houses. After playing for several years in the Langley Middle School Auditorium, this new “Nutcracker” takes full advantage of the larger and more technically-refined real estate, giving its audiences bigger, more colorful dances, fantastic scenery, better sound, and some surprises that would not be possible in the old theater.From the opening scene at the Silberhaus Christmas Eve party, it is plain that every one of the 80-some dancers on stage were superbly trained by choreographer Asharaine Machala. Children’s games melt seamlessly into an adult ballroom dance, building up to the grand appearance of Godfather Drosselmeyer and his band of marionettes, wind-up dancers, and other wondrous, magical toys. Drosselmeyer, played by Brock Daniels, comes across as a majestic, mysterious, yet caring man who loves to astound his relations, especially young Clara Silberhaus, played by Andrea Burr.As Clara, Burr receives a nutcracker from Drosselmeyer, then proceeds to dream that the toy is suddenly a real boy. Burr and that boy, Devin Matthews, are charming as they dance together through the battle with the Mouseking, in the Christmas Wood, and in the Forest of Magical Dreams. But they by no means steal the show, which allows all the other dancers to shine through.While every dancer is incredible, at least one must be ranked a tier above for her demanding role in the production. Amy Windecker plays both the combative Mouseking and the lead mermaid during one of the fantastical dances in the Forest of Magical Dreams. As the Mouseking, Windecker is flawless, even with a huge mouse head mask obstructing her sight. But as the mermaid, she is unique. Making an entrance on a pair of ropes suspended from the catwalk above the stage, Windecker is a graceful swimmer floating in midair. Joined by other merpeople who float up from the stage on ropes of their own, Windecker is graceful and, despite the extreme physical effort of doing a ballet in the air, stays in time with the music.Particularly fun were all the little dancers who flipped and somersaulted across the stage as the Tumbling Gnomes and Drosselmeyer’s toy bear. Ariel Caroll, who played the bear and one one of the gnomes, took on two of the perhaps three most physically demanding scenes in the musical. Even as she and the other tumblers flipped and rolled across the stage, they maintained the perfection of gymnasts and the poise of dancers. They also brought giggles from the audience with their aerobatic antics.As much a character as any of the dancers was the spectacle of this “Nutcracker.” Sitting in the audience, one can only imagine how many hours, days and weeks it took to rig up the snow machine that gave the scene in the Christmas Wood the feel of a starlit winter’s night deep in a Russian forest. Scene designer Beno Kennedy and prop designer Bennett White must have given up their day jobs to create the show’s backdrops, the cave in the Forest of Magical Dreams, and Mrs. Bumble’s giant, bouncing skirt. The care they took in designing all of these things truly shows through under Chuck Whitmore’s lighting, which could have set the mood on its own. Worth special note was the subdued, blue-green lighting Whitmore dappled over the Merpeople during their aerial rope act. The illusion was so strong that it was not hard to imagine the stage filled to the top with sea water.Credit for transforming the dancers into giant mice and rats, marionette soldiers, flowers, bees, and snowflakes goes to mask designer Diana Shirley, and to costume designers Colette Riggs, Aloria Lanshaw, Mary Ellen O’Connor, Tarey Kay, Gary Kay, and Jeannie Miller, as well as the more than a dozen seamstresses and hair and makeup artists. While many costumes came from the “Nutcracker” production two years ago, there were obviously yards and bolts of new material on stage -- all transformed into costumes worthy of the most well-funded “Nutcracker” productions.The show’s artistic director, Charlene Brown, deserves more than just a pat on the back for her work, because this “Nutcracker” is truly first rate. Unfortunately, it may be impossible in future years to make room for any improvements.Well, there’s nothing wrong with suffering along with perfection."

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