Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), December 19, 2019
“Tell Tchaikovsky the news,” sang the late great Chuck Berry in “Roll Over Beethoven” — and if the 19th century Russian master didn’t get the memo the first time, he might be interested to know that, here at the tail end of 2019, one of his most enduring concert classics has been given a holiday makeover complete with a transporting to an enchanted land known as the Jersey Shore, and a compositional assist from members of the Garden State rock band The Gaslight Anthem. Because of course it has!
Going up for six performances this weekend at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in the Deal Park section of Ocean Township, The Nutcracker ROCKS represents a delightfully unexpected collaboration between the APAC’s in-house professional dance company The Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater [AXCBT], and a team of Jersey-based creative partners highlighted by two core components of the New Brunswick-spawned Anthem: bassist Alex Levine and guitarist Alex Rosamilia.
As director and choreographer Gabriel Chajnik explains, “this is our first full season of ballets here at the Axelrod…and we wanted to finish the year with a work that adds something of the musical tradition in our area.” Recognizing The Nutcracker as “the ballet that most kids and families are exposed to first,” the founder of the AXCBT (who performed in the 1892 classic during his days at the National Academy in his native Argentina — and who, as a student at NYC’s Juilliard School, thrilled to multiple stagings of George Balanchine’s landmark production) set out to create something that “would appeal to the classicists…and to the Jersey Shore rock and rollers.”
Indeed, the producers aren’t trying to “gaslight” their audience when they pitch this intriguing project as a work that’s “destined to become a Jersey Shore staple for many holidays to come“ — a thing designed not so much to set P.I. Tchaikovsky spinning in his grave, as to get the old boy humming like a dynamo in sync with its fuel-injected energy.
Riffing on the original source stories by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas — and the ballet’s familiar plotline of young Clara and her Christmastime voyage through magical realms of mouse armies, sugarplum fairies, and an enchanted nutcracker soldier — The Nutcracker ROCKS boasts a new book by Red Bank Regional High School drama teacher Reuben Jackson (entirely coincidentally, Chajnik’s old Juilliard roommate), a traditional score (recorded by maestro Jason Tramm and the 40 piece MidAtlantic Symphony Orchestra at Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium this past October), dozens of young student dancers, acrobatic performers from Howell High School, “rats instead of mice; rockers instead of soldiers” — along with “hip-hop elements” and a layered rock component (including two all-new songs) custom-crafted for the occasion by the two Alexes and their partner in X Squared Productions, Wes Klienknecht.
As for exactly how the ballet master (who became a full time resident of Ocean Grove when given the opportunity to establish the AXCBT) connected with the veterans of the band best known for the album The ‘59 Sound, it’s as simple as the fact that “Alex Levine was my barber!”