No ‘Nutcracker’ this holiday season
AKRON – A longtime holiday tradition will not come to the Akron Civic Stage this holiday season.
The Ballet Theatre of Ohio, based out of Munroe Falls, will not perform its annual “The Nutcracker” this year.
In a statement posted Wednesday on Facebook, the Ballet Theatre of Ohio has staged “The Nutcracker” for 27 years.
“It is with much sadness that we announce that we must take this year off, due to the restrictions from the pandemic,” the post stated. “We hope you understand this incredibly difficult decision. We are looking forward to our spring show, Sleeping Beauty May 1 and 2 at the majestic Akron Civic Theatre and we hope to continue to be part of your holiday tradition in the upcoming year.”
The ballet, with the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, tells the story of Clara, who receives a Nutcracker from her godfather, Drosselmeyer on Christmas Eve. In her dreams that evening, Clara imagines her Nutcracker has come to life, and must defeat The Mouse King. After the battle, the Nutcracker, who has turned into a prince, leads Clara to the Land of Sweets.
Brothers Joshua and Jeremiah Isley of Tallmadge have been involved in “The Nutcracker” since the first year as Drosselmeyer and The Mouse King respectively. They grew up in Ravenna.
Jeremiah said the very first production was in May, as part of Meneer School of Dance’s spring recital.
“We began rehearsing in January, possibly even earlier, to prepare for that first performance,” Jeremiah said. “Shortly after, very early in the summer the entire cast was called in for a photo shoot, which was really a clever ruse - there was no photo shoot, but it was a big meeting to announce that we had been asked to bring the production to the Akron Civic Theater.”
The first show
Joshua said that putting together the first show “was a lot of work but it was a lot of fun.”
“It was a good group of people who came together and put their talents to use,” Joshua said. “I remember Chris Meener [artistic director] coming to my brother and I and asking us if we would be in it, and she wanted me to play the part of Drosselmeyer and my brother to play the part of The Mouse King. Of course, you know, we agreed to it, and it was awesome. [Meneer] actually took the video and showed that to the Akron Civic Theater and that's how we ended up doing it later that year for the first time at the Akron Civic Theater. If you were to see that very first show in the spring and what it is now, I don't even think you'd recognize it.”
“Chris Meneer has never ever been one to say ‘that's good enough,’" Jeremiah said. “There is literally no detail that is too small for her very scrutinizing eye. So for nearly three decades, the show has seen everything from major set design upgrades, new costumes, new roles, down to the tiniest details in jewelry or props. We've gone from a tiny artificial Christmas tree that got very precariously pushed off stage by a harlequin doll, to a massive fully lit tree that grows 3 stories high. We've had bridges, giant rocking horses, trains, larger than life mousetraps, a Jack-in-the-box, and about a thousand other show elements come and go over the years.”
One thing that hasn’t changed?
“The magic of being there in the Civic Theater,” Joshua said. “The magic of being around people that I've known for years or decades. Meeting the people that are new and just seeing their faces and reactions to the magic that is ‘The Nutcracker.’ You know being on stage performing it's awesome and entertaining the audiences is great.”
Jeremiah said that “the experience of performing at the Akron Civic, a theater I had seen concerts, and movies at growing up, was and still is a very humbling experience.”
“The deep and rich history of performers who have graced that stage dating all the way back to its earliest days as a vaudeville playhouse, is breathtaking,” Jeremiah said. “To be able to step on that stage when the curtain rises, knowing all those who went before me is truly something I never have and never will take for granted.”
Performing on “The Nutcracker” also allowed Jeremiah to mentor the children and teens who would perform with him.
“Once I graduated and became an adult, I started to notice that the younger dancers actually would listen to me, and look up to me,” Jeremiah said. “I saw a really great opportunity to help them through the emotional minefield that is: live performance as a middle school or high school student. Kids at that age put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves, and really struggle with self confidence and self image, not to mention the nerves that come with performing at a high level. It's an amazing experience for them and they learn so much, and as someone who's lived through it I'm so glad I can help talk them through all of the emotion and struggle that can come along with this amazing art form we practice.”
It wasn’t all hard work, Jeremiah added. There were many moments of fun.
“It was equal parts incredibly hard work, and raucous fun,” Jeremiah said. “We used to sneak out into the house of the theater and play cards on the stairways that lead to the balcony, make prank phone calls from the payphone in the trap room -- yes, there was a payphone just hanging out in the basement of the theater -- and sneak into the cavernous plenum chamber, a giant room underneath the house. A lot of the fun we had involved sneaking away out of sight of the watchful eye of Meneer.”
The brothers had been taking lessons at Meneer School of Dance for several years, Joshua said.
“Jeremiah and I, along with my sister, we had been going and taking dance classes from the Christine Jones-Meneer School of Dance for a few years at that time,” Joshua said. “I started when I was about 10 years old my brother would have been 7 or 8. My sister started a few years later when she was about 3 or 4 years old.”
A holiday tradition
Joshua said that doing the annual ballet “is more than just a show for us,” and “this is what makes not doing it this year so difficult.”
“We enjoy families coming up to us after the show, sometimes with multiple generations there, they come up to us and say ‘hey I was a little girl and when I saw it with my mom and grandma and now I'm bringing my girls,’” Joshua said.
“The Nutcracker” dancers, Joshua said, have become like family.
“Thanksgiving is the biggest travel time of the year, it’s the time of the year people go home to be with their families,” Joshua said. “We go home to the Akron Civic Theater every Thanksgiving to be with our Nutcracker family during that time. And I think that's to be with our Nutcracker family during that time, and I think that's what kept us coming back. You know my brother and I have gone through so many life changes, from being teenagers to now in our mid-forties. We both got married, I actually proposed to my wife on stage after a show ... Dec. 5, 1999, I remember it like it was yesterday. Chris Meneer helped implement my plan to propose.
“This is all very emotional for me. I have two children and they've been in the Nutcracker, my brother's got three kids and they made appearances as babies in the party scene. At one point my entire family, my mom and dad, myself, my brother, and my sister were all on the stage at the same time during the party scene in those first few years. My dad was the original General, my mom was the original grandmother and you know there's all these memories. I’ve known Chris for 37 years … her daughter Kelly Meneer, she was a little kid when we started dance there and we’ve seen her grow and take on the role she's in now and more and more responsibilities with the production.”
Chris Meneer’s mother Jo Jones “was a huge part of “The Nutcracker,” Joshua said.
“The last year she was there she gave me an ornament of Drosselmeyer,” Joshua said. “That's one of the last ornaments we put on our tree every year. She told me one of her favorite parts of 'The Nutcracker' was something small I do on stage, that I wasn’t even sure anyone ever noticed, and every time I do it I think of her.”
Jeremiah reflected on how much has changed in the past 27 years.
“When we started doing the show, the internet wasn't a thing,” Jeremiah said. “When Chris Meneer called me to ask me to be in the show, the phone I answered was attached to the wall. But as life changes, we always look for certain touchstones, traditions, ways to help us remember life is good, that there is warmth in the world. I know that ‘The Nutcracker’ has done that for so many families. I can't tell you how many times folks will approach me after a show and tell me how they used to bring their children, and now are bringing their children and grandchildren, and the fond, warm memories they have with their families of years gone by. Or how many times I've heard ‘This is how we always begin our holiday season!’ ‘The Nutcracker’ has really embedded itself into the fabric of this area's holiday season.”
Joshua said he looked forward to participating in 2021.
“The show will go on,” Joshua said.
Jeremiah works at Magical Theatre Company in Barberton doing live sound design during the school year, and has done sound work for the Lock 3 concert series. He also produces a podcast.
Joshua owns and operates a wedding entertainment business, JET DJs.
Reporter April Helms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org