The “Hip Hop Nutcracker” is the new Nutcracker standard as far as I’m concerned. The original 19th-century classic, adapted from an E.T.A. Hoffman story and set to Tchaikovsky’s score, has since become a Christmas time mainstay, and now it’s been given a fresh, evocative, and totally funky update. From what I could tell, the audience certainly responded. It was a party at the Strathmore with plenty of orchestrated clapping, dancing in the aisles, and even a little “Rapper’s Delight.”
…fresh, evocative, and totally funky update…It really is a delightful two hours…a performance that isn’t afraid to play with a few traditions in order to create some bold new ones.
The show begins with a lively introduction from the evening’s MC, none other than rap pioneer Mr. Kurtis Blow. It was a triumph of nostalgia as the production opened. Blow brought the audience along on a mini hip-hop journey for the ages. His old school rewind hit all the right notes, “Rapper’s Delight,” “Hip Hop Hooray,” “Just a Friend,” “Jump Around.” Iconic classics spun to perfection by DJ Boo accompanying Blow’s bring-the-house-down renditions.
Scanning the audience, you could immediately tell this was a fond Gen-X moment, with their children, and yes, grandchildren, looking on in awe likely wondering how all these 45+ year-olds knew the words…and the moves.
After warming up the multigenerational crowd, Kurtis Blow turned it over to violinist Vivek Menon whose electrifying violin technique really set the tone for the rest of the performance. Most are familiar with the basic plot of the original ballet. Nutcracker comes to life, a Christmas “battle” ensues between the gingerbread soldiers and the mice led by the Mouse King, a bewildered young Clara looking on. The mice are defeated, the Nutcracker is transformed into a Prince, and he and Clara are whisked off to the delectable domain of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker sticks with a similar plot while adding in a few modern-day twists: the Nutcracker (Gabriel Emphasis) is now a street vendor. In defense of Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clarke), the Nutcracker defeats the Mouse King (Randi “Rascal” Freitas, who seemed to be having the time of her life on stage) with the help of Drosselmeyer (the show-stealing Lisa “LBoogie” Bauford) and a pair of red magic sneakers, calling up a definite Dorothy in Oz kind of vibe. The Land of Sweets is now a throwback nightclub, and Maria-Clara ultimately helps her on-the-verge of divorcing parents reconcile.
The show, adapted by Mike Fitelson, deftly blends contemporary themes with the classic roots of this performance. But what it all comes down to, of course, is the dancing. The dancers are expressive; they’re willing to leave it all on the floor; and they compel audiences to want to get up and move. Hip hop set to Tchaikovsky is an experience that you can only truly appreciate firsthand. The fun the ensemble has is unbelievably contagious. Director and choreographer Jennifer Weber provides a distinctively creative point of view here, and it serves the performance well.
There are just so many elements that come together to make The Hip Hop Nutcracker work. The costumes (original design by Whitney Adams) help define hip-hop culture as set against this particular backdrop. They are clever plays on more conventional interpretations of how Nutcracker dancers are generally costumed. Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting design plays tricks with just about every aspect of the stage and does so brilliantly. And then of course, we have Moe Shahrooz’s inspired video design. The scenes for the performance are established through projected images of city streets and other such backdrops, some prove downright magical—it snows, ornamented Christmas trees spring up out of nowhere—the magic of tech meets the magic of Christmas.
It really is a delightful two hours as you get to see a performance that isn’t afraid to play with a few traditions in order to create some bold new ones.
Running time: Two hours including a twenty-minute intermission.
“The Hip Hop Nutcracker” runs through December 22, 2022 presented by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD 20852. For more information and tickets on this and upcoming events, go online. on upcoming events at the Strathmore, click here. Strathmore encourages wearing masks inside their buildings.