On Stage: Nothing like The Nutcracker to make it feel like Christmas

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By Denny Dyroff, Staff Writer, The Times

The Nutcracker by the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” is one of the most cherished—and longest running—family holiday traditions for families in the region. For many, a visit to Philadelphia to enjoy the lavish presentation by the world-famous Pennsylvania Ballet is a integral part of the holiday season.

This year’s production, which is running now through December 31 at the Academy of Music (Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.paballet.org), is the 48th annual staging of the classic ballet. The ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” and set to a score by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Featuring lively dances, colorful costumes and elaborate sets, “The Nutcracker” is a production that appeals to audiences of all ages. The original version of the timeless classic was first presented in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1892.

“This is my fourth season doing ‘The Nutcracker’ with the Pennsylvania Ballet, said artistic director Angel Corella, during a recent phone interview. “Time flies.”

Born in Madrid, Spain, Corella joined American Ballet Theatre in 1995 and was quickly promoted to principal dancer. In his 17-year career with ABT, he established himself as one of the greatest male dancers of his time.

Corella has also appeared as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London, the Kirov Ballet in Russia, and New York City Ballet. From 2008-2014, he served as director for his own company, the Barcelona Ballet.

“Ballet is full-time—for me and for the dancers,” said Corella. “We try to refresh it every year – to bring a new direction and a new energy to it – to have new dancers and old dancers in new roles.

“We have a 16-year-old girl – Sydney Dolan – doing one of the principal parts. She an apprentice and she is so talented. Some other new roles are Peter Weil as Cavalier andZecheng Liang, a new dancer who came from the Houston Ballet, as Cavalier and Chinese. +We have 12 casts. We do 26 shows and it’s challenging.

“The energy and dynamic of the company is changing. It’s very exciting now. With ‘The Nutcracker,’ it might be the first time for audience members so dancers have to go onstage like it’s the first time. It’s very important that the theatrical part of the show is there.

“The challenge is to keep it fresh. But, no-one would dare to change the choreography.”

Balanchine’s choreography plays a major role in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” The company has been doing both acts by Balanchine for the last 30 years.

George Balanchine, who was named Giorgi Balanchivadze when he was born in Russia in 1904, was one of the last century’s most celebrated choreographers. He was a primary developer of ballet in the United States in his position as co-founder and ballet master of New York City Ballet. Balanchine created his version of “The Nutcracker” for the New York City Ballet in 1955.

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of the ballet features over 100 performers and has an annual audience attendance of over 50,000. The company’s production is big, colorful and elaborate. And, it is staged in one of the most beautiful performance halls in the country.

The version of “The Nutcracker” performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet features everything audiences associate with the timeless ballet—a cast of 19th-century families celebrating Christmas Eve, a little girl’s dream of her Nutcracker Prince, the Prince’s toy soldiers battling a fleet of mice led by the Mouse King and the crowd-pleasing second act of dances in the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“Right now, we’re still doing Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’ because it works,” said Corella. “Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ is one of the best in the world. At the Pennsylvania Ballet, I’ve gotten my first chance to do Balanchine’s choreography. I’ve always done other versions – even when I was a dancer.

“It has nice choreography. It’s great to be able to do this show and give it justice. I haven’t made any changes to the choreography. We stay respectful to Balanchine’s original choreography. We just make sure the dancers stay under control.

“It’s a classic that dancers love. A good way to change it is to have a different approach. When I danced, the approach would be different every night. I think every dancer can make it special and different every day.

“One thing that never changes is the audiences’ love for “The Nutcracker.” It is a spectacular production that turns everyone—adults, children and seniors—into wide-eyed kids.

“The whole process makes it feel like it’s Christmas,” said Corella. “There is hot chocolate. It’s snowing outside. The whole family is there and time seems to stop. It goes back to a certain place and time that everyone seems to recognize—being able to re-connect and share.”

Video link for Pennsylvania Ballet’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” – https://youtu.be/ypfQQ2duYS0.

Evening, matinee, and morning performances are scheduled from December 8-31. Ticket prices range from $35 -$164.

Another top-flight production of the classic ballet “The Nutcracker” is presented by the Brandywine Ballet. The 2017 production marks the 38th year the local company has been presenting its version of “The Nutcracker.”

The ballet is based on the timeless tale “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” and set to a score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. With its familiar music and energetic dance numbers, “The Nutcracker” is a show that appeals to audiences of all ages.

This performance is one of Chester County’s signature holiday events, and features original, traditional choreography by David Kloss and Donna L. Muzio, integrated with new choreographic elements by Nancy Page. Brandywine Ballet’s eight-performance run of “The Nutcracker” continues to delight audiences each December with a tour de force of beauty and elegance.

The Brandywine Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is a professional show that features skilled dancers, lively choreography, colorful costumes and sparkling sets. The show will run now through December 17 at West Chester University’s Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall (700 South High Street, West Chester, 610-696-2711, www.brandywineballet.org).

Nutcracker Tea at the Brandywine Ballet.

Performances of the ballet are scheduled for December 8 at 10 a.m., December 9 at noon and 4 p.m., December 10 at 2 p.m., December 14 at 10 a.m., December 16 at noon and 6 p.m., and December 17 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $25, $35 and $45 for afternoon and evening performances and $18 for morning shows.

The Brandywine Ballet will also host a “Nutcracker Tea” on December 10 and 17 at 2:30 p.m. and December 11 at 12:30 p.m.

This festive activity, which will be held in the library of Asplundh Hall, is an opportunity for youngsters to join Clara, The Sugar Plum Fairy and other characters of “The Nutcracker” for a special pre-performance brunch featuring tea sandwiches, fruit tray, cookies and favors. Tickets for the tea event are $30 and are sold separately from the performance.

The Grand Opera House (818 North Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-652-5577, www.thegrandwilmington.org) is hosting a trio of performances of “The Nutcracker” by the First State Ballet Theatre this weekend. Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. on December 22 and 2  and 7 p.m. on December 23.

Video link for First State Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” — https://youtu.be/kIu4r67agAk.

Ticket prices for the shows at The Grand Opera House range from $14.99-$50.

Music fans who are heading to the Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com) for Marty Stuart’s show on December 7 would be smart to get there early – not to get better seats but to hear the opening act.

The National Reserve

While the concert may be a showcase for Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, it is also an opportunity to hear one of the top young roots rock bands – The National Reserve. The band is a labor of love from singer and guitarist Sean Walsh.

“I’ve always been trying to write music since I was a kid,” said Walsh, during a phone interview Wednesday from his home in Brooklyn, New York.

“I’ve been doing this as my project for about 10 years. With this line-up, it’s been about five years. I found us a regular bar gig in Brooklyn that we’ve been playing for the last five years – Skinny Dennis.

“When we started with a residency there, it was the beginning of this band – being a rock-and-roll band playing a regular gig every Friday night for five years. In all this time, we’ve only missed about 10 shows – and that was because we were on the road. We play about four hours every Friday – probably playing 35 songs very show.”

With just two EPs released so far, The National Reserve obviously has to throw in some covers to fill a four-hour set.

“I try to bring in a new song or two every week,” said Walsh. “I do that to keep it interesting. Ideally, it will be originals. But, if the inspiration isn’’t there, we’ll bring in covers. We cut our teeth as a bar band so we have about 200 songs we can play on stage.”

The Nation Reserve is no stranger to Philly audiences.

In the last six months, the band has done a residency at Roxborough’s Dawson Street Pub which resulted in TNR being invited to open the NonComm Convention that WXPN hosts each May. NonComm put the band in front of radio programmers and record companies as well as many of WXPN’s most enthusiastic listeners.

In August, Walsh visited the WXPN Folk Show to promote TNR’s appearance at the Thursday night Camper’s Only show curated by World Café’s David Dye. That Thursday night’s audience refused to let the band off stage without multiple encores, which you can hear in the later-broadcast World Café episode.

“We have an album coming out in April,” said Walsh. “We’ve put out two EPs and this will be our first full-length. The majority of it was recorded in Brooklyn and in Denver, Colorado. We mixed it in Lexington, Kentucky. I produced it myself. We have one cover – a Ronnie Lane song called ‘Roll On Babe’ – and the rest are originals.

“My writing process is different from song-to-song. It might start with a slide riff or I get a progression on piano. Or, it could start with a lyric idea I get from a funny bumper sticker.”

Walsh’s songwriting reflects a variety of influences – rock-and-roll, blues, country, R&B and even gospel. Walsh prefers to think of it just as rock-and-roll.

“As a lyricist, Dylan has been a huge influence on me,” said Walsh. “I also love Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. Some of the musical influences are The Band, Leon, Russell and Dylan. They all straddled the line of blues, rock, R&B and country. I love old R&B and rock. Our music is a melting pot of all these things.”

Video link for the National Reserve — https://youtu.be/j7hiAcEUKn4.

The show at the Ardmore Music Hall will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40.

Other upcoming shows at the Ardmore Music Hall are The Everyone Orchestra on December 8 and 9; John Kadlecik performs “The Pizza Tapes” on December 9 (6 p.m.); Nels Cline/Larry Ochs/Gerald Cleaver Trio on December 10; and Reverend Horton Heat featuring Big Sandy with special guest the Blasters on December 13.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong

Frequently, bands will use alliteration in their lyrics or song titles – or in their choices for a band name. There is a band from Baltimore that takes this to an extreme with a preponderance of P’s in the group’s name – Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.

On December 8, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong will perform in Philly. On December 8, the lively four-piece group — Greg Ormont (Vocals, Guitar), Jeremy Schon (Guitar, Vocals), Ben Carrey (Bass, Vocals), Alex Petropulos (Drums) – will headline a show at the Theatre of the Living Arts (334 South Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1011, http://www.lnphilly.com).

The band definitely has developed an attitude of “giving P’s a chance.” Pigeons Playing Ping Pong has released three albums – “Psychology” (2014, self-released), “Pleasure” (2016, self-released), and “Pizazz” (2017, self-released).

“‘P’ is a beautiful-looking letter,” said Ormont, during a phone interview Monday afternoon from his home in Charm City (a.k.a. “Bawlmer”). “It’s a very progressive letter. Actually, the name came rather naturally.”

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong came together when its members were still students in college.

“The band met at the University of Maryland (College Park),” said Ormont. “We’re all finished with school. Two of the guys were from Baltimore so we’re here in Baltimore now.

“I met our guitarist Jeremy on the first day of college. I was the only student from my high school in Union, New Jersey to go to the University of Maryland so I didn’t know anyone when I got there. On that first day, I walked down the hallway of my dorm floor playing my guitar. That’s when I met Jeremy and we’ve been jamming together ever since. That was in the fall of 2006.

“The first year, Jeremy and I just played in the dorms and then that developed into us doing open mics. Then, that developed into a full band and it kept going. Once we finished school, we started touring while juggling jobs at the same time.

“After a while, we stopped juggling and went full-time with the band. We’ve been on the road for six years. We love playing live. We feed off the energy of the crowd.”

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong released a record while the members were still in school – a record called “Funk EP.”

“It’s not an EP but rather a full-length album,” said Ormont. “That was about eight years ago. We recorded it in one night at the University of Maryland. At the time, we just wanted a snapshot of where we were with our music.

“Since then, we’ve made three albums. The most recent is ‘Pizazz,’ which came out on October 20, 2017. We recorded it at Wright Way Studios in Baltimore.

“Steve Wright is the owner and engineer at the studio. He’s a great engineer and musician. We also worked with him on our ‘Pleasure’ album.”

Pleasing patrons is Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s main purpose when performing.

“Our goal is to make every show better than the one before it,” said Ormont. “Every show is different. We’ll never play the same set twice. Just the other night, we played a song I wrote in the dorm room. We also like to play theme nights.”

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong has established a continually growing audience in just a few years. The band’s rabid fanbase is known as “The Flock,” which doesn’t read quite right. “The Phlock” would be a much better name to personify the fans’ passion.

Video link for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – https://youtu.be/B0_JfM5n4ls.

The show at Theatre of the Living Arts, which has Magic Beans as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18.

Other upcoming shows at the TLA are Mogwai in December 9 and SWMRS & The Interrupters with special guests The Regrettes and Mt. Eddy on December 10.

’68

Back in April, Wilmington was rocking when ’68, a rock duo that formed four years ago in Atlanta, performed a high-octane set at the World Café Live at the Queen.

Now, The two-piece band that features guitarist/vocalist Josh Scogin, formerly of the hardcore band The Chariot, and drummer Michael McClellan, is headed to Philly for a show on December 8 at the Voltage Lounge (421 North Seventh Street, Philadelphia, 215- 964-9602, www.voltagelounge.com).

“We’ve been on the road a lot over the last 10 months,” said Scogin, during a phone interview Monday afternoon from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. “We did a Europe tour that included shows in the U.K. and Russia and a couple U.S. runs.”

The last 10 months also featured a line-up change and the release of a new album – “Two Parts Viper” (Good Fight/Cooking Vinyl).” The band’s sophomore LP follows its 2014 debut album — “In Humor and Sadness” (eOne/Good Fight).

Scogin has always been the core element of ’68.

“In 2013, all of us in The Chariot parted ways,” said Scogin. “We all had next ideas. I had been doing The Chariot for 10 years and that was enough. It was better that we called it quits after 10 years. I knew that I was going to keep doing music so I figured it would be fun to do a two-piece.”

The Chariot played its final show in November 2013. Just a few days later, Scogin began teasing an announcement with a countdown timer on the website “theyare68.com.”

Once the timer ran out in December 2013, Scogin revealed that he formed a new band named ’68 and subsequently posted a two-song EP titled “Midnight” for sale online.

“I talked to my friend from home Michael McClellan — an old friend who I had used as a studio drummer in the past — and asked him to join ’68,” said Scogin. “We met over burritos and he was up for it. His older brother Matt worked at a studio I did my albums at.

“Michael and I would meet at the studio and hang out. I realized he was really good and really versatile. He was very quick and he knew what he was doing. With ’68, there is no set list. There are a lot of free jam parts. I knew Michael had that ability. We’ve grown together and now are really in synch with each other.”

The line-up change happened when Nikko took over for McClellan.

“Right now, Nikko, who is a hometown guy, is playing with me,” said Scogin. “Michael had some family stuff and had to step down. Nikko has been with me for the last three tours.”

Nikko has been able to pick up where McClellan left off and has learned the songs from both albums.

“I recorded the new album last year,” said Scogins. “It was done in bits and pieces over a seven-month period.

“We still tour as just a duo and there are some challenges with only two of us. There always is a learning curve. With my previous band, it was all heavy all the time – no guitar pedals. When I began playing with a duo, I didn’t know how to split my guitar signal three ways.

“I’m still learning the tricks and the effects just to get my signal across. I started knowing nothing about it. Now, I play my guitar and kick it down into the bass world. I know how to do what I’m doing – but I’m still evolving.

According to Scogin, “I wanted it to be as loud and obnoxious as it can be. I want it to be in-your-face. I want people who hear us live to just be like, ‘There’s no way this is just two dudes!’

“That became sort of the subplot to our entire existence — ‘How much noise can two guys make?’ It’s obviously very minimalistic, but in other ways, it’s very big. I have as many amps onstage as a five-piece band.

“We’re really just exploring all the different things we can do. I’ll get more pedals, we’re try different auxiliary instruments, whatever – the goal is to challenge ourselves and challenge an audience.”

Scogin also focuses on solid lyrical content to go along with the band’s sonic assault.

“I’ve always written albums,” said Scogin. “I see a whole theme – a whole idea. It’s easier for me than just writing unconnected singles.

“I am working on new stuff. I’m always writing. But, there’s nothing official right now – no new record yet. We haven’t even started that conversation.”

Video link for ‘68 — https://youtu.be/uKfDN8Sgx2U.

The all-ages show at the Voltage Lounge, which has Whores and Alistair Hennessy as opening acts, will start at 5 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Other upcoming shows at the Voltage Lounge are Trapt on December 7, Camp Lo on December 9, Angel Vivaldi on December 10, Vesperteen in December 11, The Number 12 looks Like You on December 12 and Cam’ron on December 13.

If you’re familiar with Bob Dylan or Americana music, then you surely are familiar with The Band. Unfortunately, The Band lost two members who have gone to the other side and now no longer exists as a band.

In case you’re not familiar with Bob Dylan’s first foray into electric rock music and his performances with The Band, The Weight Band will help you learn this piece of American music history – actually American/Canadian music history.

“The Weight” is a song by The Band. The Weight Band is a band named after The Band’s song “The Weight.” The Weight Band is a music group put together to keep alive the music of The Band.

On December 8, The Weight Band will visit the area for a Point Entertainment show at the Colonial Theatre (Bridge Street, Phoenixville, 610- 917-1228, www.thecolonialtheatre.com).

The Band was a Canadian-American rock group featuring Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson. In 1965, Dylan hired them as his touring band when expanded for a solo folk artist to a folk-rock musician with a group behind him.

After a while, Roberston left to pursue a solo career and then later Manuel died. The remaining three members continued to tour and record albums with a succession of musicians filling the departed members’ roles. The final line-up included Richard Bell, Randy Ciarlante and Jim Weider.

Danko died of heart failure in 1999, after which the group broke up for good. Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and continued to perform until cancer won the battle in 2012. A passing wish of Helm was for the music and spirit of The Band to live on. The Weight was formed to do just that. The Weight came into existence to bring a live performance to fans of The Band — but not as a tribute band.

Replicating the music of The Band is a tall order but interpreting the music of The Band is an art.

Performing songs of The Band, The Weight Band is keeping the spirit and the music alive that helped define an era.  Members of The Weight Band were either actual members in The Band, or are directly and deeply connected to its legacy.

The group features Jim Weider from The Band, Brian Mitchell of the Levon Helm Band, Marty Grebb, who wrote for The Band and worked with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, and Albert Rogers, who shared the stage with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson in The Jim Weider Band.  Michael Bram, the newest member of The Weight Band, played with Jason Mraz.

“A few years ago after we lost Levon, Randy Ciarlante and I put The Weight together with a couple other musicians,” said Weider, during a phone interview from his home in Woodstock. “We did songs of The Band and the shows sold out.

“Then, we got Marty Grebb. We did a few shows and it really started to take off. We added Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs. Now, Byron has left the group and we pulled in a new bass player — Albert Rogers. He had played in my band — the Jim Weider Band — in the ’90s.

“We’ve been going out in spurts — three shows and then come back. It’s on and off. We’ve done shows in Florida, California, Tahoe — and New Years’ Eve in San Francisco. But, we don’t want to go out for weeks at a time. We do nice rooms on three or four-day tours — five days at the most.”

The members all have other projects but it is the music of The Band that binds them together.

“I started playing with Levon in the early ’80s in the Levon Helm Band,” said Weider. “Randy was in the band too. In 1985, when Richard and Garth moved to Woodstock, we toured with Crosby, Stills and Nash. We went out as The Band. That really changed my life.

“With The Weight Band, we do everybody’s favorites such as ‘Up on Cripple Creek,’ ‘The Rumor’ and ‘Look Out Cleveland.’ We do stuff from the early records and tunes I never did with The Band. We try to change up the set list all the time to keep it fresh.

“We’re getting a real mixture in our audiences. Of course, there are a lot of older folks who want to hear the songs they know. But, we’re also getting kids who have started listening to The Band’s music. This music is such a strong part of American music.”

Video link for The Weight – https://youtu.be/DWjOzvrIzSw.

The show at the Colonial Theatre will start at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $27.50-$42.50.

Kennett Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) will present A Cappella Pops – Holiday Tour 2017 on December 7, An Evening with Jerry Douglas on December 8, The Melton Brothers  on December 9 and Christie Lenee, Scott Birney, Matt Sevier, Mark Unruh on December 10.

The Steel City Coffee House (203 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, 610-933-4043, www.steelcitycoffeehouse.com) will host Heston Acoustic with special guest Tara Hendricks on December 8.

Chaplin’s (66 North Main Street, Spring City, 610-792-4110, http://chaplinslive.com) will host Mike Kennedy on December 8 and All Good People on December 9.

Burlap & Bean Coffeehouse (204 South Newtown Street Road, Newtown Square, 484-427-4547, www.burlapandbean.com) will present

David Jacobs-Strain and Bob Beach on December 8 and Jackson Pines and Mike Herz on December 9.

The Keswick Theater (291 N. Keswick Avenue, Glenside, 215-572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com) presents Holiday Doo Wop Vol. III  on December 9.

The Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com) will have Sons of Serendip on December 7, Poppa Chubby on December 8, Ornament on December 9, Tom Rush on December 10 and John Flynn on December 13.

The Grand Opera House (818 North Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-652-5577, www.thegrandwilmington.org) will present “From the Mixed-Up Files” on December 7, Carols in Color on December 10 and Irish Christmas in America on December 13.

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