Whether through dumb luck or plain-ol’ common sense, some of us successfully avoid painful calamities, such as contracting gonorrhea or extended stays in a federal penitentiary. For instance, I have never seen a full, live production of The Nutcracker. While I know it’s always produced during the holidays and have nothing against classical music, I also know it’s a ballet, and short of contracting gonorrhea during an extended prison stay, there are few things that sound less appealing to these trailer-park-by-way-of-Philistia sensibilities.
So when word came down that noted writer, performer and NPR commentator Sandra Tsing Loh was dusting off her 2003 piece Sugar Plum Fairy, and then South Coast Repertory’s promotional materials stated it was about the Southern California native’s childhood obsession with The Nutcracker, I was underwhelmed.
But duty calls, and Loh is a ferociously talented and witty writer, so I put on my big-boy reviewer pants and walked into the theater with as open of a mind as possible, even though I was sure that the beauty and elegance of any ballet would be lost on me.
Whether it was the law of diminished expectations, or the fact that this is a blisteringly funny and bittersweet examination of enduring one of life’s crushing disappointments (far more bitter than sweet), I enjoyed nearly every moment of the approximately 75-minute show. Sure, there are ballet references throughout that I would need a glossary to make sense of, and yes, the story does follow a grown woman reminiscing about her 12-year-old self hungering for a lead role in The Nutcracker, but it is about far more than that. And all of it is relayed in such an energetic, lacerating and sharp fashion by the three-person cast and director Bart DeLorenzo that it’s impossible to not be enraptured the entire time.
Though it began as a one-woman show, Loh has obviously worked on the piece, which begins with her walking onto a stage decked out in the worst excesses of a mall Santa display, dressed as a Christmas tree, and singing one of the most saccharine Christmas songs of all, Sleigh Bells. Joined by two overbearingly cheerful elven henchpeople (Shannon Holt and Tony Abatemarco, who play multiple characters throughout), Loh tosses candy to the audience while switching the lyrics to recount some of 2017’s less-than-stellar events. But a technical malfunction ensues, and the production grinds to a halt. Efforts to resuscitate a dead electronic Santa fail, and Loh frees herself of her garish costume and decides to tell a different Christmas story, one about her.
Loh sets the tableau by nailing what living in Southern California was like in the 1970s, from the burnt-orange shag carpet to the avocado-green kitchen appliances, and then describes her family dynamic: a mother who drives her two daughters—the older one an ice-princess perfectionist (a faceless mannequin held by Holt) who is always in the front seat, the younger, artistic, back-seat-confined Loh—to a prestigious ballet academy in Chatsworth, about an hour from their home.
When it’s announced that the academy is holding auditions for the aforementioned Nutcracker, the sibling rivalry hits fever pitch, as Loh’s sister is obviously the more technically proficient dancer, but Loh is hell-bent on landing the role of Clara (apparently a big deal). The arrival of two famous Russian ballet stars who will oversee the auditions further intensifies the process.
It’s clear that between her soon-to-be-realized body issues, her sister (who is occasionally actually played by Holt) and another wünderkind fellow student (portrayed, via lights, as a twirling snowflake on the stage floor), Loh has no chance to land a key role. But when she discovers that she is exiled to the huge, faceless ensemble, she is confronted for the first time with the harsh reality that even though most of us grow up buying into the canard that we can be whatever we want to be, life invariably has other plans.
And that is the theme that courses through Sugar Plum Fairy, whether it’s through Loh’s recounting of the main story or her frequent, hilarious interactions with the audience, usually while gorging on Fritos, downing peppermint schnapps and gulping down Aleve, as a 55-year-old mother of two teen daughters. That life is filled with disappointment after disappointment, few things work out as we envision, not everyone is as special as they think they are, and, even though we’re convinced every time Lucy holds that goddamn football that we’re finally going to kick it, it’s always going to be snatched away at the last second.
But the resilient ones keep hoping and keep trying. And the best of that lot turn the angst of adolescence and bitterness of maturity into engaging, raucously funny and oddly inspiring stories such as Sugar Plum Fairy.
Sugar Plum Fairy at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Thurs.-Fri., Dec. 21-22, 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. $23-$83.