Missing ’99¢’ or where is your ‘Nutcracker’?

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[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

I always feel sorry for artistic directors and producers this time of year.

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesHere they are with this holiday slot that they’ve got to fill and just over their shoulder is that juggernaut of seasonal cheer and ticket sales: “The Nutcracker.”

Think about it.  The dreaded holiday slot is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it should be a great opportunity to bring the family to the theater, or the relatives from out of town, or those friends you only see twice a year. If you buy into “The Nutcracker” model (and millions do) it’s a time to dust off an annual classic, drag the costumes out of storage, reprint the postcard, and sell tickets to the same folks — year after year.

It doesn’t seem to be quite so easy for LA theater.

There are a couple of notable exceptions (“A Christmas Carol” at South Coast Repertory that keeps going year after year, “Bob’s Holiday Office Party” and others) but for the most part LA theaters haven’t found their Christmas goose.

It’s a tough slot, hence the curse. Who wants to work over the holidays? What do you program? Do you embrace religion? What do the holidays even mean in a city without mittens and hot chocolate?

I’ll leave it to others to explain “The Nutcracker’s” special magic and formula but there’s one key ingredient that I long for in a great holiday show: the gift of being able to grow up with it as both a performer and as an audience. As a dancer, you can go from being a fairy princess to a toy soldier and on up. There is an embrace of the whole range of age both onstage and in the house. You have the sweet innocence of the beginner and the virtuosity of the soloist. The progression of form and talent is woven into the very structure.

We aren’t so good at that in the theater. We tend to default to one extreme or the other.

The show I always miss this time of year is one of Ken Roht’s “99¢ Spectaculars.” Almost a decade ago, Ken would mount an annual holiday show crafted entirely from items found at the 99¢ store. Ken’s irreverent choreography and outlandish plot lines combined with glorious costumes hewn out of tablecloths and colanders by Ann Closs-Farley, and others, together formed a ritual that was simultaneously deeply ironic, profoundly heartfelt, and always redemptive.  Encased in each costume was both an inherent criticism of the over-commercialization of the holiday season and paradoxically a celebration of that very materialism.

Each year, we’d return for the next chapter and for that chance to see everyone. Part of the magic was seeing so many from a particular niche of the theater community onstage year after year. You could rest easy in connecting with your friends — of feeling a part of a community. Beautifully, there were also some kids in the mix. Here was a show you could grow up with. Ken found a way to embrace a community and diversity of talent without defaulting to one extreme or the other. Like that vinyl tablecloth that was reborn as an evening gown, the virtuosity was in the transformation not the raw material.

Ken found a way to be both edgy and sweet, capturing that alchemy that’s both appropriate for the family and yet not too saccharine for the adults. The story lines, however wacky and whimsical, managed to hold together just enough to get us to the big dance number finale and the vanquishing of whatever villain happened to appear that year.

Sadly, like so much inspired work in LA theater, it wasn’t sustainable. Our labors of love can only last for so long . . . Others have tried to copy the recipe but, like your grandmother’s signature dish, it’s never the same with a different cook.

I’ll keep searching for a new holiday tradition in the theater. Till then, I guess I’ll buy tickets to “The Nutcracker.”