Popular production draws on a wealth of local talent
On the long road to Christmas, “The Nutcracker Ballet” is a favorite and familiar stop. This year The Merc Playhouse presents this beloved story in the form of a play, guided by a script written by Jen Walker Rodgers and the dynamic co-directing duo of Jane Orme and Missi Smith.
“The Nutcracker: A Christmas Play” — which opens Friday (Dec. 2) and continues through Dec. 11 — has been two years in the making at The Merc. In fact, it was scheduled for production on The Merc stage in December 2020, but had to be canceled due to the pandemic.
Smith said, “I was especially enamored with it because I spent many years of my childhood dancing in ‘The Nutcracker Ballet’ with the Indianapolis Ballet Theater. I have always loved the magic and beauty of this particular ballet and when I found out there was a scripted version, I thought it would be perfect for The Merc!”
The plotline runs along the traditional Nutcracker ballet narrative: A Christmas Eve gala, the gift of a wooden soldier, a dream, a wicked Mouse King, a series of adventures in strange lands, sugarplums, snowflakes and a prince.
But the play is, in Smith’s words, “Mashed up to fit the talents of our particular community. With Betsy [Kieckhaefer’s] creativity on the set, Darla [Hussey’s] fantastical costuming, and Dean [Hussey’s] twist on the music, it will have its own Methow stamp.”
Orme noted that Stephen Kish, technical director of The Merc, met with the two directors to understand their technical vision for the show. “He then spent hours putting it all together into a computerized format so that the sound and lighting technicians [Dean Hussey and his younger brother Kenny] can run the effects from the tech booth with the push of two buttons.”
Much to enjoy
Everyone, even those who don’t necessarily appreciate the “language of ballet” on the stage, will grasp and enjoy this version of “The Nutcracker,” Smith said.
They’ll also enjoy the costuming. “We have never had this many costumes in a show,” Smith said. Smith learned that the Pacific Northwest Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” has 154 costumes. “The Merc is holding its own with 65 costumes,” Smith said. “With Darla in the lead, it took a village of others to make it happen.”
One of the many beauties of community theater is the opportunity to see familiar faces onstage. The Nutcracker is rife with such opportunities. The script is written for 22 roles, about 10 of them for children. But when 40 kids auditioned for the show, Orme and Smith knew they needed to nurture the youth interest in theater arts; they cast more than 20 in parts.
Managing this many kids onstage (not to mention backstage) is a feat that Smith attributes to Orme’s “genius instruction, organization, creative, and communication skills,” saying that “only with her help could we put as many youth actors on the stage as we have and bring this show to level it has achieved!”
Smith choreographed the show and worked with Dean Hussey on the sound plot. “The rest is the magic of Jane,” she said, “who, incidentally, will be turning around and starting again with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ auditions in about a week.
COVID continues to affect live theater. As Smith suggested, post-COVID, the interest in theater seems to have skyrocketed among the 8 – 18 age group. “We never imagined the number of kids who would audition,” she said.
In addition to casting more children to accommodate interest, Orme and Smith assigned understudies. “A couple of the kids have learned two roles so that if the lead children wind up sick, the show will go on,” Smith said. “Kids are amazing at learning and memorizing lines, so it seems to have worked out well. The understudies will get to perform the school-day show for Methow Valley Elementary.”
Lena Frady, who plays Owl Clock and Bonbon, is the understudy for Nova Gehring, who plays Clara. Lena and Nova learned each other’s parts so that they can switch on the day of the school performances.
Complementing the youth roles will be adult actors, some well-seasoned, like Merc co-founder Carolanne Steinebach and Lyndsay Frady, and some new, like Lexi Lodwig and Ted Lafferty. Occupying the space between kid and adult is Merc veteran Melody Langan, who, Smith said, “is capping her senior year [of high school] with every theater opportunity she can fit into her busy schedule.”
“Most of the adult actors have full-time employment,” Orme said, “but are generously donating their time to be part of this production. We are so fortunate that Carolanne Steinebach — the Grand Dame of The Merc Playhouse — said yes to portraying Godfather Dross. She is fabulous, as usual.”
Concessions and a silent auction will be available before the show and during intermission. Doors open an hour before showtime to allow adequate perusal of the silent auction items.
“The Nutcracker: A Christmas Play” shows are Dec. 2 – 11. Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows are at 7 p.m.; Sunday shows are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for youth, $18 in advance for adults or $20 at the door. Admission is by donation on Thursday, Dec 8. More information at www.mercplayhouse.org/happening-now.html.