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Updated 'Nutcracker' is a South Whidbey original

"Katie Riggs (left) as Clara and Amy Berto as the Fairie Queen dance together in the second act of The Nutcracker.Matt Johnson / staff photoWhere and whenThe Nutcracker, at South Whidbey High School auditorium, Dec. 8-9, 7:30 p.m., Dec. 9-10, 2 p.m. Tickets, $12/$10; matinee $5 for ages 13 and under; at WICA box office, 221-8268. A production of Whidbey Dance Theatre, presented by the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.Hmmm. Now it all makes sense.Ever wonder why no character in Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ever bats an eye when Drosselmeyer starts pulling live toy soldiers, bears, and other creatures out of his Christmas trunk at a party that is not part of Clara's dream fantasy? Me too, at least until Sunday's performance of The Nutcracker by Whidbey Dance Theater.On stage at the South Whidbey High School auditorium, this season's retelling of The Nutcracker works more magic and creative license into the plot than usual. At Sunday's matinee -- the fourth performance of eight this season -- a packed house watched a newly restaged first act blend with last year's cleverly written second act into a truly original Nutcracker.Performed with more of its principal characters en pointe than ever before, the show makes another evolutionary step this year. The performance is a true ballet, performed impressively by a cast that averages about 15 or 16 years of age. Technically, the dancers are excellent and are well choreographed by a crew led by choreographer Kyra Barnholt, who played the Snow Fairie in last year's performance. On a redesigned, first-act set, this year's troupe of dancers is nonetheless at home on stage together. Most of the cast members are back from last year's performance, although some dance in different roles. Nutcracker veteran Katie Riggs replaces Andrea Burr as the lead character, Clara Rothchild. Clara, along with her uncle, Colonel Drosselmeyer (Susan Campbell Sandri), and Drosselmeyer's Indian assistant (Ramon Paz) are the hub around which a spiral of colorful, spritely dancers revolve.Home from a tour of duty with the British Army in India, Sandri's attention-mongering Drosselmeyer uses magic and secret potions to transform mere toys into real creatures. The plot device works, wiping out the line between reality and Clara's dream fantasy about her nutcracker. In fact, at the end of the show, it is hard to believe that Clara has had a dream at all. As far as anyone watching the show is concerned, everything that happens on stage is real, not only to Clara, but to Drosselmeyer and all the other characters.Midway through the first act, the dancers showed true professionalism when a fire alarm forced show organizers to clear the theater until Fire Protection District 3 personnel could check the high school for a real fire. As it turned out, the cause of the alarms was smoke from a stage cannon used by the toy soldiers during their battle against the mice and rats. Twenty minutes went by before the dancers could resume the war scene, but they did it without a hitch. The dancers playing the smallest of the mice, including Amy Arand, Shayna Grant and Annie Wescott, were adorable and provided a number of chuckles as they scurried around and annoyed Drosselmeyer and the Nutrcracker. Their leader, the Rat King, was again well played by Amy Windecker, who made children in the audience both love and hate her in the guise of a sneaky and malevolent rodent.In the final scene of the first act, Kira Hubbard shone through as one of the show's stars. As the Snow Fairie, Hubbard proved herself to be a solid ballet dancer, and a fine actor. Attended by veteran snowflakes. including Andrea Burr, Katelyn Candelario and Amy Grove, Hubbard helped keep the show moving through one of its most complex dance numbers.In the second act, Amy Berto took over where Hubbard left off, giving a great performance both solo and in an ensemble as the Fairie Queen -- a role played by choreographer Barnholt last year. From the Watersong scene to the Waltz of the Flowers, the act is colorful and full of energy. There are even a few laughs thanks to Beno Kennedy, who plays the hugely-skirted Madame Bumble for the second year in a row. The act is so good that Riggs' Clara, who is paired with Paz as the Nutcracker prince, almost get lost in the dazzle of the second-act scenes. But they are neatly pulled to the forefront again by Drosselmeyer at the show's end.This new Nutcracker does miss in a couple of spots. It seems all the new additions pushed out a few of the plot devices and attitude that made the show such a success last year. Though back in the second act for this year, the show's fabulous Watersong ballet -- performed by rope dancer and choreographer Amy Windecker -- is noticeably and sadly shorter. Also missing in some parts of the show is the feeling of fun the dancers exuded last year. That is understandable, since the extreme technical challenges of moving from dance theater to ballet undoubtedly demand more of the dancers' attention. The noticeable absence of Brock Daniels, who played Drosselmeyer last year, is also a contributing factor.Nonetheless, artistic director Charlene Brown and the show's choreographers and dancers have created a truly original Nutcracker. It is a show that no Nutcracker fan should miss. "

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