New York, Theatre XIV
9 December 2018
It’s that time of year when all varieties of Nutcracker fill theatre after theatre. But true form, Austin McCormick’s Company XIV continues to maintain the highest bar in balletic, baroque burlesque.
Nutcracker Rouge is a savvy, eclectic revue incorporating classical dance and opera with pop culture and vintage kitsch. Although a Nutcracker doll makes a brief, early appearance, the focus of the production is on Clara’s sensual education in the Land of Sweets, her educators as varied as wasp-wearing men in heels, leather-clad dominatrixes or the sultan’s harem.
Return viewers will recognize several numbers, but McCormick changes enough acts every year to make an annual ticket worthwhile. Fresh cast members, costumes and bits were to be seen. The troupe’s commitment to an immersive experience is astonishing. Theatre XIV, the troupe’s permanent home in Brooklyn, is a (very nice) black box theatre turned rococo fantasy with gilded mirrors, chandeliers, candlelight, rose garlands, plush couches a plenty. Cast members teasingly flash their tassled pasties and bedazzled codpieces beneath fur coats and silk robes as they serve at the bar, escort you to your seats and make audience members feel like royalty. As with other Company XIV productions, sensitive lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and Zane Philstrom’s lavish costumes and sets are paramount to the Rouge mood and aesthetic.
Some welcome new numbers include the wondrous twins Ross and Nick Katen tap dancing in sequined banana suits to “Banana Split for My Baby,” followed by a striptease revealing cropped white tuxes with ice cream scoops on each shoulder. The Katens revisited their “Turkish Delight” single point trapeze act, the two of them twisting their bodies around each other, dangling one another by an ankle to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance music – one of the highlights of the production year in and out.
Another anticipated feature is Marcy Richardson’s operatic, aerial work. Often transforming a pop song into a slow spun aria while she performs an aerial hoop number, this year’s tune of choice was Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman,” sung in French. Were it not for the six-inch spiked gold heels on Richardson, this number could have been smoother. Usually flawless, this time there was a hint of labor involved in negotiating her heels in and out of the hoop, something which was unnoticeable in previous iterations. Among the balletic, corps de ballet ensemble numbers was a snow scene set to Vivaldi’s ‘Winter,’ and pas de six of Candied Violets set to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers.
Male emcee Michael Cunio remains a pivotal performer, belting out song after song, and warming the audience up with playful coquetry. While known for his soulful covers of Etta James, Otis Redding and James Brown, he can also pivot into rock mode. This year, his hair metal rendition of Melanie Martinez’s “Milk and Cookies” is what sticks in the mind. His fellow emcee, the radical and raunchy Storm Marrero killed it with her ballbusting rendition of “Sugar Blues.”
Allison Ulrich gave another fine performance as Clara. Ever game to the entertainments unfolding before her she also gives her own fine high burlesque solo to Ellington’s orchestration of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Thank goodness the hyper-erotic pas de deux (partnered by the princely Nathaniel Hunt), a true anchor of the production, is firmly in place, as romantic and sexy as ever.
The extroverted sensuality which is threaded through all the troupe’s productions is especially varied in this holiday romp. Sex can be silly, sassy, serious and fun. In addition to the balletic burlesque, McCormich’s camp, vintage kitsch numbers are some of the best on offer. From both the musical and visual perspectives, the camp, titty-tassled send-ups of saccharine songs from back in the day are as subversive as they are celebratory.