It’s probably the only “Nut”-case where Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy, excuse me, Sugar Rum Cherry, wound up together.
I’m writing of “The Jazz Nutcracker,” which had its premiere here in Pittsburgh in 1983. Up-and-coming choreographer Doug Bentz stumbled on the idea when he came across Duke Ellington’s version in a New York record shop. With a lot of chutzpah and a few musical enhancements, he forged a full-fledged alternative to the ballet version that was ruling the Yuletide roost.
It had an American twist, where Clara was the daughter of vaudeville performers. Like the original, it was a coming-of-age story, but this Nutcracker soldier was not only an awkward teenager, he was stiff as a board…until Clara helped him evolve. Together they went through a snowy, two-dimensional shopping scene to arrive at Act II Cabaret, where the parents performed their Ma and Pa Act, along with their first-act friends like Hong Kong Charlie, Arabesque Cookies (a.k.a. the Murphy sisters) and the afore-mentioned Sugar Rum Cherry.
She was played by a sinuous Judith Leifer, who could do more with her pinkie finger than a half-bare Brittany Spears did years later with a boa constrictor. And yes, she went on to marry Doug.
But he didn’t stop there. Doug kept plummeting into his mystical story, bringing it back again and again. Right now it’s in its fifth or sixth incarnation at the Pittsburgh Playhouse — neither of us could quite decide.
There’s a brand new student cast, although the veteran Benny Benack Band, a late addition along the way, is still there schmoozing with the very smart Ellington score. And even though it still focuses on vaudeville, with a historical jazz setting, some technology has crept in.
Doug is pretty thrilled with that aspect. “I had always imagined it to be cinematic,” he enthuses over the phone. “But we didn’t have anything like digital projection then. ” With the technical expertise of Michael Essad and Jessie Sedon Essad, he is now able to take the mesh wallpaper of the living room and morph into snowflakes, then visa versa in returning from the Act II Cabaret, where they achieved an Art Deco look.
This time around, Doug took the cast to The Warhol, where they could see the hats, gloves and jewelry that adorned full-fledged dresses back in the fifties. After all, they each had to design a character and keep it for 90 minutes, with the help of costume designer Amy Coleman.
With today’s contemporary choreography, mostly ensemble numbers with fleeting solos, it feels retro to students. They have to be individuals from the vaudeville circuit, performers who know how to hold the stage for a complete solo or duo.
They also learn how to become very specific about the details, like holding a reaction for two or three beats and waiting for it to register with the audience.
So just as Drosselmeyer gives Clara an evening of imagination, the dancers can extend that to the audience.