Children’s Theatre’s season taps into the classics – with a twist

VERO BEACH — In his search for the perfect dance performance opportunity for Christmas 2010, Riverside Children’s Theatre choreographer and master teacher, Adam Schnell, thought of the perennial favorite, “The Nutcracker Ballet” by the Russian composer, Peter Tchaikovsky.

But Schnell wanted a classic with a distinctively American twist. And he wanted something all young dancers could sink their teeth into, not just aspiring ballerinas in crackling tutus. Enter Duke Ellington, the American pianist, jazz composer and Big Band leader extraordinaire. In the 1960s, Ellington (with the help of his right hand man, Billy Strayhorn) took Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (the miniature version of the full-length score) and re-scored it with a jazzy feel.

In their capable hands, Tchaikovsky’s classics were reborn, yet remained recognizable.

Thus, “Dance of the Reed Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” becomes “Sugar, Rum, and Cherry.”

Just listening to a few tracks tells you that this is sensational music.

In the late 1990s, choreographer Donald Byrd created a production called “The Harlem Nutcracker” using the Ellington/ Strayhorn music augmented into a full score by the famous swing bandleader, David Berger.

Thinking this might be a production that he and his dancers could “hit out of the park,” to quote Schnell, he contacted Berger, who owns the rights to the production.

Schnell says that Berger could not have been more cooperative.

“He really cut us a break on royalties for such an amazing piece because he was just excited that the score would be used again,” Schnell explained.

There are many different versions of “The Nutcracker” and Schnell believes that this swing version is probably just as faithful to the original as any other.

“The themes are there, many of the same characters, and the basis of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece will all be present,” he says.

Schnell is billing it as, “The classic holiday tale told to a whole new beat!”

With between 50 and 70 performers, “The Nutcracker: In Swing Time” will be very big, and very swinging. Performances are scheduled for Dec. 10-12.

When a director needs a break, writing a script of a classic fairy tale could be the pause that refreshes. That’s exactly what RCT’s theater director and instructor, Kevin Quillinan, discovered in writing his version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” which will be directed by Angelo Cerniglia and opens Dec. 28 at the Anne Morton Theatre.

The last time that Quillinan wrote a script was for the play “Peter Rabbit” two years ago.

“Writing ‘Thumbelina’ lets me take a lot of my love of the Disney film and write something more snarky than ‘Peter Rabbit,’ ” Quillinan said.

The literary fairy tale is about a thumb-sized girl and her many adventures before falling in love with a flower- fairy prince, who is, happily, just her size.

The story hinges on Thumbelina being frequently picked up and carried around by various creatures. To make it work, the set must be gigantic.

Cerniglia recently got a look at the model of the set and was delighted with what he saw.

“Giant blades of grass are all around the stage and massive mushrooms tower before you,” says Cerniglia. “It’s incredible.”

He predicts members of the audience will have to restrain themselves from running up and playing on the set before the show starts.

“I’ll have to fight the temptation to play on the set myself,” says Cerniglia.

While remaining faithful to the original, Cerniglia says Quillinan has written it with a flip side that’s “comical with fantastic characters.”

With a cast of about 20, “Thumbelina” offers juicy parts for actors as young as eight as well as for older ones.

Opening on Dec. 28, “Thumbelina” will play through Jan. 9.

For more information about classes in theater and dance at RCT, visit www.riversidetheatre. com or call 234-8052.

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