BTO’s ‘Nutty Nutcracker’ spoofs beloved holiday ballet

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Damien Highfield (left) as the Cavalier, Kim Sulek as the Sugar "Plump" Fairy, Joshua Isley as Drosselmeyer and his brother Jeremiah Isley as the Mouse King, cast members of the Ballet Theatre of Ohio's The Nutty Nutcracker in Munroe Falls. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

A rotund fairy who’s obviously eaten way too many sugarplums, lumbering around and flinging herself at her cavalier, might not be the first vision that comes to mind with the beloved Nutcracker.

But this is the Sugar Plump Fairy, and the show is The Nutty Nutcracker — a spoof of the classic Nutcracker to be performed by Ballet Theatre of Ohio Dec. 6.

Artistic Director Christine Meneer said last year’s inaugural Nutty show — created in honor of the company’s 20th anniversary — was such a hit, BTO decided to do an encore. With the buzz last year’s show generated, BTO is hoping this Nutty will be a sellout.

“People were just hysterically laughing. They loved it,” Meneer said.

The spoof uses the same sets and costumes as the traditional show but creates humorous twists with the story, pulled off by key character actors who have performed with BTO’s Nutcracker cast for many years. For example, a hobo crashes Clara’s family Christmas party, which leads to gag after gag.

Clara, played by sixth-grader Paige Skripac of Stow for the Nutty Nutcracker performance, is in on the joke. But most of the comical material is handled by older and professional dancers.

Adult brothers Joshua and Jeremiah Isley, whom Meneer has known since they were dance students, and tap/jazz teacher Kim Sulek provide the main laughs. All three are original cast members of BTO’s Nutcracker, which began in 1993.

“They are the funniest people around. They are a big part of what we are doing,” Meneer said. Joshua, of Tallmadge, plays Drosselmeyer; Jeremiah, of Akron, plays the Mouse King; and Sulek, who hails from Barberton, plays the overly enthusiastic Sugar Plump Fairy.

The comedic version will be mixed in with six performances of the traditional ballet Saturday through Dec. 8.

Many major ballet companies throughout the country do a Nutty spoof, many with political humor. Because Meneer’s audiences are dominated by children, she decided to stick with simple slapstick that would appeal to kids of all ages.

This comic variation on a holiday classic requires lots of extra rehearsals for both character actors and cast, considering Meneer has created completely different choreography for the show’s second act. She says both the traditional shows and Nutty have an entertaining, beautiful story.

Barb Kelly and Deborah Wilhite have created new costumes, too, including Sulek’s fat suit, which extends all the way down through dimpled legs.

The moment this Sugar Plump Fairy reveals herself to her Cavalier, danced by professional Damien Highfield, he screams in surprise.

“She keeps begging him to lift her up, and he’s like, ‘No,’ ” Meneer said.

In this farce of a grand pas de deux, the Sugar Plump Fairy kicks the Cavalier in the groin after doing a pirouette and tosses him around after he unsuccessfully tries to pick her up. He pretends he’s about to lift her and then walks away, leaving her to slide to the floor.

“I’m rolling around on the ground for parts of this dance, a big old body slam on the ground,” Sulek said before a studio rehearsal in Munroe Falls in late October.

Highfield, one of four professional ballet dancers in the production, plays the straight man as the Cavalier but he enjoys the change of pace from traditional story ballet roles he has played.

“In this, you’re allowed to trip and fall on your face and run away,” he said.

Sulek is no stranger to balletic comedy: She previously played an Ugly Stepsister in BTO’s Cinderella. “Basically, whatever part needs the most makeup and silliness, that’s my part,” she said.

In one scene, Joshua Isley joins the Snowflake dancers as a hairy-chested “understudy” in a tutu — with a beard.

Meneer had been talking about creating a Nutty Nutcracker for about 15 years, so the Isley brothers and Sulek were thrilled to iron out the details. They laughed their heads off in a brainstorming session last year at Applebee’s.

Last year, the iconic character Mother Ginger — who normally has her adorable polichinelle children emerge from underneath her huge skirt — had crazy characters pop out instead, including a pizza delivery guy, cops and robbers, the Village People, Darth Vader, cowboys and Indians, and even roller derby girls. Audiences can expect a different motley crew to emerge from her skirt this year.

“Last year it was like the clown car idea: You never knew what was coming out next. We’re hoping to tweak it and make it new and fresh,” Sulek said.

Every year, the company develops new elements to add to either The Nutcracker or the festivities surrounding it. This year, BTO is partnering with local bakeries to run a Nutcracker Sweets booth, with a signature dessert created by a different bakery for each performance. They are West Point Market of Akron, Dipped and Dazzled of Stow, the Bake Shop in Ghent of Bath, Vincent’s Bakery of Cuyahoga Falls, Cupcake Binge of Munroe Falls, Custom Cake Creations of Stow and Main Street Cupcakes of Hudson.

The Nutcracker Sweets booth is a fundraiser for BTO. Guests may also go to participating bakeries to purchase the Nutcracker Sweets goodies and receive discount coupons to any Nutcracker performance.

From 12,000 to 13,000 people attend BTO's Nutcracker performances annually, and the company is starting to see more adults and couples. Doors open one hour before each show so guests can see Santa in his workshop and look at a display of elaborate gingerbread houses created by Dr. John Learner of Cuyahoga Falls.

Tradition’s important for the Isley brothers, who have never missed performing in BTO’s Nutcracker, and their comic counterpart, Sulek. Joshua proposed to his girlfriend on stage after the final 1999 performance, and all three performers have featured their babies in the party scene over the years. Meneer’s 6-month-old grandson, Miles Postak of Wadsworth, will be in the scene this year.

This year, three of Sulek’s children, ages 4 to 11, will perform in BTO’s holiday ballet, and Highfield’s two daughters also will dance.

The Nutty creators are thrilled the spoof was so well received last year: “We had literally no idea how much people were going to laugh. Comedy is one of those things where everyone has a different sense of humor,’’ Joshua Isley said.

“If you like to laugh, this is the show you need to go to,” Meneer said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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