The Klezmer Nutcracker is an amusing play for children that mixes chanukah traditions and Jewish music with klezmerized themes from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. The story, by Ellen Kushner (host of Public Radio's "Sound and Spirit" program) and based on her children's book The Golden Dreydl, won't win any awards for originality, but its winning characters and enthusiastic cast held the kids' attention at the performance I saw.
Bored young Sara (the spunky Danielle Strauss), down with a case of pubescent existential angst, is given, not an enchanted nutcracker, but a magical Golden Dreydl that becomes the Dreydl Princess (the graceful Melana L. Lloyd). This ballerina-like waif takes Sara to a magical kingdom ruled by her parents, Solomon and Sheba - not the biblical or historical characters, but a benevolent sort of Father and Mother Time who oversee a fairyland of Fools, talking animals, and demons who are more funny than scary.
When the demons snatch the Princess, the Tree of Life is threatened, and with it all of Creation... or something. The plot flops around a bit, with story points merely stated, and references and themes flying by at breakneck speed - rather like the Fool, who guides Sara through the enchanted land attempting to rescue the Princess. Dan J. Gordon plays the Fool with a big, loose-jointed nod to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, and indeed kids may notice strong parallels to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps even more than to the original Nutcracker ballet.
This isn't a ballet, and parents of budding ballerinas should probably mention that fact ahead of time so kids' expectations aren't set unfairly. Nor is it a musical - it's a play with music. Chanukah songs are sung, and there's some boisterous choreography by Dax Valdes, set to recorded music that uses Tchaikovsky's themes transmogrified very cleverly by David Harris and Michael McLaughlin for the fabulous Shirim Klezmer Orchestra.
Most inventive of all is a wonderful Peacock scene, where the talking, preening bird is played by one actress (the amusingly brash Lindsey Levine) while a group of actor-dancers plays her feathers, all making one organism. This sort of thing is the true magic of the theater, the reason to take kids out to a show rather than plop them in front of a DVD.
The Klezmer Nutcracker runs Saturdays and Sundays at 11 AM and 1 PM through Jan. 3, 2009 at the Vital Theatr, 2162 Broadway (at 76th St.), 4th Floor, New York. Call 212-579-0528.