THEATER REVIEW: “The Nutcracker” musical at New Village Arts

“The Nutcracker,” that charming ballet warhorse with sugarplum fairies, sweetness and light gets a somewhat darker makeover at New Village Arts, in the West Coast premiere of a non-balletic but musical version of the Christmas favorite.

Here, friends and family gather at Clara’s house for the traditional Christmas Eve party, when a knock at the door brings not a reveler but a Marine, who hands Clara’s parents Martha (Rin Ehlers) and David (Steve Froelich) a folded flag and the sword belonging to son Fritz, who has died in battle.

But before the pall can settle over the festivities, Fritz (Edred Utomi) returns, reincarnated as a spitting-image nutcracker by Uncle Erich Drosselmeyer (David Macy-Beckwith). The remainder of the show highlights Clara’s relationship with this Fritz – and, of course, her battle with the Rats for Christmas.

Eleven-year-old Abby DeSpain takes on the enormous role of Clara with the poise and confidence she has shown before, but here she also gets to sing. And, together with her beloved toys – Hugo the robot (Brian Butler), Phoebe the pull-string doll (Jennifer Paredes) and the French-inflected sock Monkey (Shaun Tuazon-Martin), she will try to relieve the tension in the house by making cookies and banish the Rats with a plan she dare not disclose (to preserve “plausible deniability”).

And these are some rats! A Cockney trio (Michael Parrott, Amanda Morrow and Justin Tuazon-Martin) in wild black costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, they hate Christmas as much as the Grinch does.

This is a clever, updated (but much darker) version of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story. The book is by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich; music by Kevin O’Donnell and lyrics by Jake Minton of Chicago’s House Theatre.

On the other hand, where else will you see Toys fighting Rats with cymbals and tennis rackets (because somebody brought the box marked “Sports” down from the attic)?

The cast is excellent, Tim Wallace’s versatile set offers a movable storybook feast, the costumes are terrific and Colleen Kollar Smith contributes some lively choreography.

The songs could use better lyrics and more memorable tunes, but the look and effect of the whole is one to bring a smile to adults and children who are not easily frightened by large Rats.

The details

“The Nutcracker” plays through Dec. 31 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad, California.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (760) 433-3245 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.