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BalletRox gives 'Nutcracker' a vibrant twist

This is a ''Nutcracker" with attitude. Anthony Williams's ''Urban Nutcracker" is set not in Victorian England but in a present-day inner city, where holiday shoppers cross paths with busking drummers, doo-wop singers, and dancing gangs in a friendly face-off between tap and hip-hop. Instead of opening with genteel pirouettes by velvet-clad children, ''Urban Nutcracker" kicks off with local step team A Chosen Few and its dynamic, high-kicking slap dance, and B-Boy Liem Nguyen, who whirls into a series of dazzling acrobatic flips and head spins.

This high-spirited, multicultural take on the traditional ballet, now in its fifth year with Williams's BalletRox, vibrantly blends the traditional with the modern. Tchaikovsky's beloved score alternates with Duke Ellington's jazz suite, and ballet mixes with a variety of contemporary dance styles. It's a supportive showcase for Williams's enthusiastic students, who share the stage with an impressive range of professional talent.

Despite some rough edges in Saturday's opening performance, the production is fun, well-paced, and quite entertaining for kids and adults alike. David Ira Rottenberg's scenario keeps enough of E.T.A. Hoffman's original tale to be familiar yet adds new twists. For anyone who has OD'd on traditional ''Nutcrackers," part of the pleasure here comes in noting the elements that provide wry parody.

Perhaps the biggest twist is the creation of a new character. The dapper Drosselmeyer, given a charismatic performance by Michael Shannon (who is also chief of emergency medicine at Children's Hospital), comes with a sidekick, Minimeyer. Choreographed for the unique talents of Yo-el Cassell (soon to star in the Broadway production of ''Pinocchio"), Minimeyer is the show's ongoing comic relief, and Cassell's rubbery flexibility and daffy demeanor are scene stealers.

The two magicians entertain party guests, providing dancing rag dolls (expertly performed by Ty Parmenter and Amanda Bertone), a break-dancing toy soldier (a dynamite Isaiah Beasely), and, of course, the treasured Nutcracker that sends young Clarice on her fantasy journey. Kids and adults do lively jazz/swing dancing as party guests, including Jack Luceno, Kramer's double on ''Seinfeld," and actor/singer/dancer Ilanga, who gives the Grandfather a delightful, loose-limbed pizzazz.

The postparty shenanigans involve mice indulging in a champagne-and-cheese picnic and soldier girls in fatigues and toe shoes accompanied by a commando who makes a spectacular leap onstage from the balcony. The awkward transition to the snow scene desperately needs retooling, but Williams has devised substantive ballet choreography for the snowflakes, who did a first-rate job despite some slipping on the fake snow. With his buoyant leaps, Rick Vigo was a tall, elegant Snow Prince.

The Act II variations were transformed by kids with hula hoops, exercise balls, and streamers. Mother Ginger became Old Mother Hubbard with a giant shoe full of adorable tap-dancing orphans. Guest-artist standouts were Ricardo Foster, Rachel Klein, and Aura Tavares in an acrobatic hip-hop version of the Russian variation; the spirited Caitlin Novero in the Spanish one; and Amanda Bertone and Alexis Britford in the Chinese variation.

E. Leticia Guerrero and Davide Vittorino were outstanding as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. Guererro has exquisitely expressive arms, articulate feet, and impeccable balance. As her partner, Vittorino displayed solid technique, excellent timing, and a charming persona.

In a nice touch, Drosselmeyer and Minimeyer return at the end to escort Clarice safely home, Drosselmeyer holding his young charge aloft as Minimeyer twirls with glee.

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