by Susan Kepecs
Lots of ballet companies across the country have taken to adding a Nutty Nut – a spoof on the beloved holiday ballet – to the long seasonal run. Nutty Nuts run on top of the traditional production, shaking up the storyline, swapping out parts of Tchaikovsky’s score for other sounds, sending up the popular culture and featuring a few intrepid local non-dancer celebs to boot. On Saturday, Dec. 22, in Overture Hall, Madison Ballet served up its first-ever Nutty Nut. I went with a Grinchy chip on my shoulder. What I really wanted (and still want) was a bold new approach to the standard show, instead of slapstick. But parts of Nutty Nut made me laugh so hard there were tears in my eyes, and that’s a pretty cool Christmas present.
I was charmed by the start. In the orchestra pit, the Colonial Club Senior Band warmed up the audience. Decked out in Santa suits and plying old-timey instruments – washtub bass, accordion, an assortment of bells and triangles – the Sun Prairie ensemble swung a set of chestnuts, among them “On Wisconsin,” “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Deck the Halls.” To this bright pre-show accompaniment I read the dancers’ “bios” in the program, which had me rolling in the aisle.
The party scene, though – Wizard of Oz meets disco-era gay bar in Victorian drawing room – was dicey. Colonial Club Exec Director Bob Power, dressed as Dorothy, rocked his ruby slippers. The “YMCA” routine, while dated, drew its share of laughs from the audience. But swapping the ballerina and soldier dolls for a trio of drag Barbies in hot pink swimsuits and platinum blond wigs was overkill. Doll alternatives are endless, but as the proud owner of an Aaron Rodgers bobblehead I submit that guys in green and gold jerseys, wearing wobbly masks and doing touchdown dances or Lambeau Leaps into the Stahlbaums’ grand staircase, would have been lovely.
On the other hand the ice fisherman in the snow scene, sitting on his bait bucket downstage right, impassively wiggling his line into the orchestra pit and totally ignoring Marguerite Luksik’s and Brian Roethlisburger’s finely tuned snow pas going on right behind him, was brilliant.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the Nutcracker rats, and I adored the rat that rollerskated across the stage behind the snowflakes’ sweeping grand alegro.
I had to stifle a colossal fit of laughter when the company’s ballet master, Sarah Melli, in pink bathrobe and slippers, hair powdered white, hobbled past the leaping snowflakes pushing a walker.
The “Dancing with the Stars” motif in Act II – featuring congressman-elect Mark Pocan and Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain as the judges, with WKOW TV morning news anchor Elishah Oesch as the host – needed punching up. Given Donald Driver’s smashing success on the "Stars" show last spring, Packers dolls from the party scene would have fit right in. As it was, the contestants – the Stahlbaums and another couple transported from the party scene – just stood there. They should have taken a waltz around the stage before losing – natch – to Clara and her "peanut prince," whose Sugarplum pas, even in this spoof, was picture-perfect.
Rachelle (Chocolandra) Butler must have had a few too many peeled grapes in her dressing room before her Merliton solo, since she stumbled on in fluffy pink bunny slippers that she had to take off and toss into the wings before turning in her ever-so-slightly hammy, though true to the original, danse en pointe.
I started out with doubts when Shannon Quirk and Cody Olson, in black dance briefs, did the Arabian pas to Leon Russel’s “Song For You” (I’m not sure whose version was on the canned sound track). But the fit was perfect, the effect clean and contemporary.
I haven't a clue why artistic director W. Earle Smith picked Golden Girl Betty White to do the Russian solo. But Phillip Ollenburg in pearls, wispy pale blonde wig and blue blouse, embroidering his big, bold ballet jumps with occasional arthritis attacks, was so supremely silly that he utterly stole the show.
Well, that and the Gangnam Style grand finale. Betty White, Dorothy in ruby slippers, Clara in her Sugarplum tutu and pointe shoes and all the rest of the Madison Ballet cast shakin' up the PSY thing was truly goofy.