We all know the story of The Nutcracker. An excited Clara has received the titular toy by her mysterious Uncle Drosselmyer. Her enthusiasm is soon curbed by Fritz, her younger, precocious brother. Upon breaking the nutcracker, in effect distressing Clara, Uncle Drosselmyer looks at Fritz and yells, “Your conception was a mistake!” Don’t remember that line? Well, get ready. This is not going to be your parents’ Nutcracker. Or your grandparents’. Maybe even your great-grandparents’.
The Immersive Nutcracker Cocktail Fête, a partner production between director Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx, creative producer Rachel Foti-Adams (The Count’s Den), and Kevin Madden (Fever Original), with Fever Up Original Events, plays fast and loose with the Christmastime standard that has become practically mandatory for every theater, from 5 seats to 5,000. And with no less than at least 17 different productions (we counted) in the Los Angeles area during the 2019 Christmas season, this version is a welcome change of pace. Along with 20 fellow party guests, the audience is transported to the main room of the Stahlbaum home. For 90 minutes, guests are served vegan-friendly holiday treats and different matching cocktails whilst the show progresses. There is no performer/guest touch as the event is really more of a participatory immersive piece with little interaction.
Audience inclusion, and agency as a result, is used very sparingly in this production. Each participant is encouraged to pick out and wear costume pieces, as well as engage in party games at the beginning of the evening. At about the midway point, audience participation largely disappears into observation only. If someone is new to immersive theater and isn’t quite ready to delve into the more inclusive productions yet, this might be a nice introduction. If not, The Immersive Nutcracker Cocktail Fête might not be the interactive piece you’re looking for.
The set creates a more mysterious tone than the show itself. Guests are greeted by the low, ominous lighting and musty scent of the Stahlbaum living room; an extravagant emptiness fills the space as the audience takes their seats beneath the looming Christmas tree. White sheets cover pieces of furniture, wigged servants greet guests warmly then hold their positions, and an eerily glowing grandfather clock watches over the proceedings. Through these elements, the darker side of what The Nutcracker contains is nicely hinted at: strange magic and evil creatures lurking in the shadows. It almost feels as if the audience is going to be treated to a darker version of The Nutcracker than most companies would dare try.
But as The Immersive Nutcracker Cocktail Fête begins, the mood abruptly shifts from ominous to camp. The four-person acting troupe that will be playing all of the roles is introduced; no small task. They proceed to blaze through a Cliff’s Notes version of the story in the style of a ragtag, bickering acting troupe. With actors refusing to play certain roles, delivering face-palming puns, and switching out costumes at every moment, it’s as if The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged has taken over. The result is a bit of a scattershot. While the execution is very fun and the actors admirably juggle so much material with terrific humor (especially the unflappable Roger Q. Mason), it feels like a different show than the one expected at the start of the experience given the severe Gothic ambiance.
A sobering moment comes near the end of this mostly silly incarnation of the story. Following a gag, the actress playing Clara calls out her fellow actors for their constant riffing. In talking about her warm feelings for the story of The Nutcracker, she mentions how it reminds her of Christmas with her father. And that she misses it, and him. Story-wise, this makes sense as Clara and her father reconnect at the end. But you can’t help but feel this reference goes beyond the story, and becomes a commentary on the cultural impact that The Nutcracker has had. As overdone as it has become over the years, it has also become a punchline. However, one cannot ignore the staying power of the piece, and how deeply ingrained it has become for generations of families. They share memories of it much like Clara shares the memories with her father. It would’ve been interesting to see them play with this balance of subversive humor and genuine love of the source material more throughout the piece, thus making that moment all the more moving.
The tonal imbalance of The Immersive Nutcracker Cocktail Fête presents the biggest issue. The combined darker, visual aesthetic mixed with a very tongue-in-cheek storytelling method clashes in a way that muddies the moral of the tale, and the takeaway of the audience. Even Clara’s epiphany at the end feels like it is from a different play. Are we delving into the darkness of the story? Are we riffing on the story? Are we finding a nostalgic connection to the story? I’d like to hope these different ideas can be balanced effectively, but this production can’t seem to find which road to take, and as a result is constantly fighting against itself.
The Immersive Nutcracker Cocktail Fête is a high-energy mashup of a classic story mixed with a meta-theatrical style. While not without its faults, it is an enjoyable evening for folks looking for a light, adults-only holiday escape. Light on the immersive, but a pleasant experience.
The Immersive Nutcracker Cocktail Fête runs through January 19th; purchase tickets HERE.