On Stage (Extra): Make the holidays come alive with local productions

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By Denny DyroffStaff Writer, The Times 

The Nutcracker by The Pennsylvania Ballet

For many families, going to a theater to watch a live on-stage production of a holiday show is an annual tradition – especially shows such as “A Christmas Carol,” “Best Christmas Ever” and various plays based on the Nativity scene. Without a doubt, the most popular holiday productions are ballet performances of “The Nutcracker.”

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” is one of the most cherished—and longest running—family holiday traditions for families in the region. For many, a visit to Philadelphia to enjoy the lavish presentation by the world-famous Pennsylvania Ballet is a integral part of the holiday season.

This year’s production, which is running now through December 31 at the Academy of Music (Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.paballet.org), is the 47th annual staging of the classic ballet. The ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” and set to a score by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Featuring lively dances, colorful costumes and elaborate sets, “The Nutcracker” is a production that appeals to audiences of all ages. The original version of the timeless classic was first presented in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1892.

“This is my third season doing ‘The Nutcracker’ with the Pennsylvania Ballet, said artistic director Angel Corella, during a recent phone interview.”

Born in Madrid, Spain, Corella joined American Ballet Theatre in 1995 and was quickly promoted to principal dancer. In his 17-year career with ABT, he established himself as one of the greatest male dancers of his time.

Corella has also appeared as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London, the Kirov Ballet in Russia, and New York City Ballet. From 2008-2014, he served as director for his own company, the Barcelona Ballet.

“I was here two years ago during (Nutcracker) rehearsals but I had to go back to Spain to retire,” said Corella, during a recent phone interview. “I was already artistic director but I couldn’t be full-time until January 1.

“Ballet is full-time—for me and for the dancers. The challenge is to keep it fresh. The energy and dynamic of the company is changing. It’s very exciting now. With ‘The Nutcracker,’ it might be the first time for audience members so dancers have to go onstage like it’s the first time. It’s very important that the theatrical part of the show is there.”

Balanchine’s choreography plays a major role in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” The company has been doing both acts by Balanchine for the last 29 years.

George Balanchine, who was named Giorgi Balanchivadze when he was born in Russia in 1904, was one of the last century’s most celebrated choreographers. He was a primary developer of ballet in the United States in his position as co-founder and ballet master of New York City Ballet. Balanchine created his version of “The Nutcracker” for the New York City Ballet in 1955.

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of the ballet features over 100 performers and has an annual audience attendance of over 50,000. The company’s production is big, colorful and elaborate. And, it is staged in one of the most beautiful performance halls in the country.

The version of “The Nutcracker” performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet features everything audiences associate with the timeless ballet—a cast of 19th-century families celebrating Christmas Eve, a little girl’s dream of her Nutcracker Prince, the Prince’s toy soldiers battling a fleet of mice led by the Mouse King and the crowd-pleasing second act of dances in the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. 

“Right now, we’re still doing Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’ because it works,” said Corella. “Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ is one of the best in the world. At the Pennsylvania Ballet, I’ve gotten my first chance to do Balanchine’s choreography. I’ve always done other versions – even when I was a dancer.

“It has nice choreography. It’s great to be able to do this show and give it justice. I haven’t made any changes to the choreography. We stay respectful to Balanchine’s original choreography. We just make sure the dancers stay under control. It’s a classic that dancers love. A good way to change it is to have a different approach. When I danced, the approach would be different every night. I think every dancer can make it special and different every day.”

“One thing that never changes is the audiences’ love for “The Nutcracker.” It is a spectacular production that turns everyone—adults, children and seniors—into wide-eyed kids.

“The whole process makes it feel like it’s Christmas,” said Corella. “There is hot chocolate. It’s snowing outside. The whole family is there and time seems to stop. It goes back to a certain place and time that everyone seems to recognize—being able to re-connect and share.”

Video link for Pennsylvania Ballet’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”—https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6j4HATkhrSY.

Performances are scheduled for December 17 and 18 at noon and 5 p.m., December 22 at 7 p.m., December 23 at 2 and 7 p.m., December 24 at noon, December 26 at noon and 5 p.m., December 27 at 2 p.m., December 28 at 5 p.m., December 29 at 2 p.m., December 30 at noon and 5 p.m. and December 31 at noon. Ticket prices range from $35 -$150.

The Brandywine Ballet’s The Nutcracker.

Another top-flight production of the classic ballet “The Nutcracker” is presented by the Brandywine Ballet. The 2016 production marks the 37th year the local company has been presenting its version of “The Nutcracker.”

The ballet is based on the timeless tale “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” and set to a score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. With its familiar music and energetic dance numbers, “The Nutcracker” is a show that appeals to audiences of all ages.

The Brandywine Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is a professional show that features skilled dancers, lively choreography, colorful costumes and sparkling sets. The show will run now through December 18 at West Chester University’s Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall (700 South High Street, West Chester, 610-696-2711, www.brandywineballet.org).

Performances of the ballet are scheduled for December 17 at noon and 4 p.m., and December 18 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25, $35 and $45.

The Brandywine Ballet will also host a “Nutcracker Tea” on December 17 at 2:30 p.m.

This festive activity, which will be held in the library of Asplundh Hall, is an opportunity for youngsters to join Clara, The Sugar Plum Fairy and other characters of “The Nutcracker” for a special pre-performance brunch featuring tea sandwiches, fruit tray, cookies and favors. Tickets for the tea event are $30 and are sold separately from the performance.

The Grand Opera House (818 North Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-652-5577, www.thegrandwilmington.org) is hosting a trio of performances of “The Nutcracker” by the First State Ballet Theatre this weekend. Performances are scheduled for 2 and 7 p.m. on December 17 and 2 p.m. on December 18.

The holiday show at the New Freedom Theatre (1346 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, 888-802-8998, freedomtheatre.org) is special for a number of reasons.

The show – “Black Nativity: An African Musical Play” – is the opening production of the theater’s 50th anniversary season.

The holiday show, which is running now through December 18, was written, directed and choreographed by New Freedom Theatre’s new artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Using a combination of gospel music, African music and traditional carols, Maharaj’s modern activist lens brings a powerful new take on a classic tale.

“Black Nativity: An African Musical Play” made its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in a co-production with the Congo Square Theatre Company.  For this production, New Freedom Theatre is partnering with Save Darfur and What’s Up Africa to foster dialogue through a series of talk backs after the show and to raise funds to send aid to Darfur.

Set in modern day Darfur, this musical play tells the parallel stories of two couples – Biblical Mary and Joseph, and a couple with the same names having a baby and living in a Darfur refugee camp.

“It was about 11 years ago when I had the opportunity to travel to Africa,” said Maharaj, during a recent phone interview from the theater in North Philly. “I went to the Darfur region of Sudan and met women who had been attacked by Janjaweed, a militia group that has been terrorizing Darfur for years. I interviewed women who had survived attacks from Janjaweed.”

That experience was the inspiration for this show which is set in Sudan.

“The events take place in modern-day Darfur and tells parallel stories of two couples,” said Maharaj. “There are Biblical Mary and Joseph, and a couple with the same names having a baby and living in a Darfur refugee camp.  Darfur Mary is heavily pregnant and has just gone into labor. Her husband, Darfur Joseph, has been missing.

“When Mary refuses to give birth until her husband has returned safely, she is visited by the angel Gabriel who takes her back in time to the evening of the birth of the Christ child. Upon meeting Biblical Mary and Biblical Joseph, Darfur Mary is challenged to trust in God’s grace and power to get her through the birth of her child and the hardships that come with living in modern day Darfur. With her newfound faith, Darfur Mary returns to the present and gives birth to her own child.”

The show is a blend of holiday traditions and political activism.

“It features Christmas songs and spectacles taken through African music,” said Maharaj. “It’s set at Christmas time at a United Nations mission camp in Darfur.

“The region of Sudan known as Darfur has been wracked with war and genocide for decades, with the Janjaweed troops terrorizing the region as they rape women and brutally murder men and children. By bringing together the conflict and challenges faced by those in Darfur on a daily basis with the challenges faced by Biblical Mary and Joseph in birthing Christ, the play reminds us of the universality of motherhood, love and hope.  By finding healing through faith and a common ground, it brings us back to what the holiday season is all about.”

New Freedom Theatre’s 50th Anniversary season continues with the Philadelphia premiere of “Mother Emanuel: An American Musical Play” (April 12-23) and the Tony Award-winning blockbuster “Dreamgirls” (June 14-25).

Founded in 1966 by John E. Allen, Jr. New Freedom Theatre is Pennsylvania’s oldest African American theater and one of only five in the nation whose mission supports the African American dramatic arts, producing both new and established plays. New Freedom Theatre is housed in the historic Edwin Forrest Mansion at Broad and Master Streets.

The Walnut Street Theatre Company (825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-574-3550, http://walnutstreettheatre.org/) has two holiday shows and one family-oriented production running this holiday season.

Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is running through December 23. Walnut Street Theatre for Kids’ production of “A Christmas Carol” is also running through December 23. And, the classic favorite The Wizard of Oz” is being performed now through January 8.

The Delaware Theatre Company (200 Water Street Wilmington, Delaware, 302-594-1104, delawaretheatre.org) is presenting its production of “A Christmas Carol” again this season. The popular holiday show is scheduled to run now through December 30.

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