James Sewell Ballet has revived the signature holiday work of the flamboyantly camp and legendary Ballet of the Dolls. This wildly inspired spoof of gay composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker conceived and created by Myron Johnson substitutes the actual nutcracker object with a Barbie Doll and is reset in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. If there is only one holiday show you go to this season, make it this one!
This is the first time a company other than the Dolls has staged it, though iconic Dolls founder Johnson himself has choreographed this uproarious revival. The JSB dancers are mostly a young bunch and Dolls veteran dance stars Kevin McCormick and Stephanie Fellner have joined the extravagantly comic production at the Cowles Center for Performing Arts. Fellner’s big floppy hat and elegant movement conjure an image resonant of Marlene Dietrich and clues you in that Johnson is a true devotee of Old Hollywood.
The luminously majestic McCormick reprises the regally narcissistic Flo, a socialite neurotically obsessed with her social status. And believe it or not, she is actually somewhat likable. Her darling daughter, Marie (an endearing Deanna Gooding) is always at the mercy of her mother’s insecurities. The poor girl, who is truly adorable, is essentially made a status object at a big Christmas bash hosted by her gregarious mother. Out of this spins all kinds of bizarre antics including a trip to the underworld where Marie’s sheltered life is shattered by some dark energy, most definitely.
McCormick and Gooding offset one another splendidly. The Sophisticate v. The Innocent. The JSB company is new to the Dolls aesthetic but they’ve all made it brilliantly their own. Chis Hannon is a vision out of what feels like a cocktail lounge dance floor from 50 years ago. Kelly Vittetoe and Jordan Lefton as Barbie and Ken are hilariously robot-like, as if reflecting the forced rigidity that unrealistic beauty standards demand of us. Johnson himself delights with flickering vitality as Marie’s doting uncle. Sewell, himself, will make you wonder just “how did he do that?!” with a walking stick trick. The entire ensemble reflects numerous movement ideas and exudes madcap pizzazz.
JSB’s Suite is big and brazen. The dance is continually bold, camp, and erotically charged. All dancers deliver fabulously. Richly nostalgic tunes reminiscent of night clubs of the 1950s and ’60s and mid-20th century treatments of Christmas carols infuse the first half. You may feel like imbibing a cocktail!
Then comes a transition to a darker rock and roll sound. Michael Murnane’s lighting and Steve Rydberg’s set, both appropriately and gorgeously brash, complement the bigness of Johnson’s vision. Fritz Masten’s gowns, Eve Schulte’s costumes, and Nicky Coelho’s props fill out the larger-than-life spirit in which this sumptuous revival revels.
If you are wondering what Kevin McCormick has been up to, he has a paint finishing and design business in New York, specializing mostly in restaurant interiors for over a decade. He plans to move into residential work as well and relates that this is the fourth or fifth time he has played Flo.
Stephanie Fellner raised her kids during years she had performed the earlier Dolls Nutcracker and says “now they are either out of college or just about. I am so grateful to Myron for including me. I miss my Dolls so very much. There’s not been a rehearsal nor a show that I have not had them in my thoughts.”
She adds “the Sewell crew has embraced Myron and the piece with the openness and reverence I had hoped for. Even those who aren’t from here. They are quite able to realize the geniuses we have been graced with. The history and high art they bring. Rydberg, Myron, Murnane, Grogan….so cool. To have Kevin back — such a special fit. Full circle.”
Nutcracker (not so) Suite
Through Dec. 20
Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis