All Aboard The “A Train”; “Sugar Hill” reimagines the Ellington/Strayhorn “Nutcracker Suite”

  • Sugar Hill

    "Sugar Hill" runs through Dec. 30 at the Auditorium Theatre; Photo by Michelle Reid
    "Sugar Hill" runs through Dec. 30 at the Auditorium Theatre; Photo by Michelle Reid


In my attempt to cover nontraditional “Nutcrackers” this year, I thought my experience with “The Buttcracker” burlesque Nutcracker by (sub)version) productions would take the cake as the most unconventional reimagining of the property. Not so! Hello Entertainment and the Auditorium Theatre say, “hold my sugar plum,” presenting “Sugar Hill,” an amalgamation of dance styles set to the jazzy “Nutcracker Suite” by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn running through Dec. 30 at the Auditorium.

“Sugar Hill,” like its bawdy burlesque counterpart, says “nuts to the story, we’re doing our own thing,” fusing ballet, jazz, modern, acrobatics, hip hop (popping, locking) and tap dance, all showcased in front of a large jazz orchestra on tall risers in the background (Harold O’Neal, Conductor). The concept and libretto are by Jessica Swan, direction by Joshua Bergasse and musical orchestrations and arrangements to Larry Blank and John Clayton.

Choreography for “Sugar Hill” was managed by a haughty team of talent, featuring the work of Jade Hale-Chrisofi, with contributions from Featured Choreographers, Jon Boogz and Caleb Teicher. “Sugar Hill” follows the adventures of Lena (Alicia Mae Holloway) and The Nutcracker Musician (Jinhao Zhang) as they navigate a jazzy dreamworld of mouse-masked greasers, sensual serpents and anthropomorphized musical instrument mascots.

Holloway is a flexible dancer—literally and figuratively—who adeptly switches between dance styles during the “Nutcracker Overture,” shifting seamlessly from powerful jeté leaps to ballroom to jazz-era social dance, and brings the house down with a show-stopping solo in the Act 2 finale. Zhang, who opens Act 1 with a solid solo of perfectly balanced turns, is stiffer during transitions between styles, but brings great energy to a demanding role.

The highlight for me was the troupe of hip hop dancers—Muata Ayodele Langley, James Luc, Ange ‘Gregg’ Sainvilus, and Tyler D. Singletary—that serve as a transitionary element between solo spots. Their cool, nonchalant and jazz-inspired hip hop is a refreshing juxtaposition to the majority of classical ballet, particularly in the Act 1 finale to “Take the ‘A’ Train,” when the troupe, dressed as “New Yorkers” in oversized suits, smoothly glides around Halloway at center stage as she performs a string of dizzying fouetté turns.

It wouldn’t be a Nutcracker without a pas de deux. Some partnering is hinted at in Act 1 between Zhang and Holloway but leaves one feeling like they are holding back. In Act 2, a pas de deux between The Nutcracker and Sugar Lu (Nayara Lopes) contains all the breathtaking showpiece lifts we were waiting for, with Zhang swinging Lopes over his shoulder, around his waist, then hoisting her high into the air, where she floats statuesque in a variety of figurine poses.

Nayara Lopes and Jinhao Zhang in "Sugar Hill"; Photo by Michelle Reid


I was disappointed in the treatment of tap dance in “Sugar Hill.” In a scene titled “Skin Deep,” as soon as cabaret tables were brought out, I said to myself, “here comes the ‘tap-dancer-on-a-table’ trope.” Sure enough, two Heartbeat Tappers (Dario Natarelli, Chase Maxwell) trade some bars back and forth, a couple of traditional time steps, a buck and wing—better than Broadway tap, but still…

The part that no Nutcracker variant can seem to defer from is the string of solos performed in the second act. After stepping off the “A Train” and entering the magical land of Sugar Hill—named after the historic neighborhood located in the Harlem district of Manhattan, New York City—Lena and the Nutcracker are treated to solos danced to reinterpretations of Tchaikovsky’s ethnically-themed score.

Each embodies a jazzified version of their classical counterparts, but stay more aligned with a ballet aesthetic:

Sugar Rum Cherry (Larissa Gerszke) dances mostly in the classical ballet style, but breaks convention by spinning upwards from the floor, rising from her knees to en pointe in one fluid motion. A solid start!

Arabesque Cookie (Tatiana Nuñez) emerges from a humongous, gilded cage, a comb of bright feathers atop her head and surrounded by a long, multicolored cape. While Nuñez moves with great confidence and aplomb, the costume and set piece are the focus of the number.

In “Chinoiserie,” two serpentine dancers (Olivia Tang-Mifsud, Ayaka Kamei) wearing snakeskin leotards squirm and slither as one would expect from a snake-themed number.

The remaining dance acts—Volga Vouty (Nikolas Danilovich-Eugene Gaifullin), Tootie Toot (Scott Weber), Mother Sugar (Brenda Braxton) and Floreadores (Natascha Mair)—are underwhelming. I’m not knocking the dancers, they’re great, but the choreography is mismatched to the music. The fast-swinging jazz versions of Tchaikovsky’s score are too quick for the ballet choreography, leaving the dancers to perform in half-time, which amounts to long sections of slow pique turns, running in large circles or just fancy-walking from side to side like a model on a runway.

Brenda Braxton as Mother Sugar in "Sugar Hill"; Photo by Michelle Reid


I wonder why they didn’t give choreographers Teicher and Boogz a crack at a couple of these solos, with tap dance, lindy hop/swing, modern/contemporary and hip hop being uniquely suited to quick, bouncy music. Instead, both art forms are relegated to background features despite being uniquely suited to the tempo and style of the music; plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The “jazz gods” are surely smiling on the show’s homages to Ellington and Strayhorn, who come back to life as Uncle Dros (Ken Ard) and Sweet Pea (Shavey Brown). The two sit together, shoulder to shoulder, at a piano center stage as they might have done in the 1930s, composing “Take the ‘A’ Train” while Lena acts as their muse, dancing in circles around the prolific duo. Both are given featured spots, conducting the orchestra, prancing around, and scatting with Jazz Singer, Jennifer Jade Ledesna. If this isn’t the closest we’ve come to seeing them as angels returned to Earth, I don’t know what is.

If you’re sick of seeing the same old Nutcracker every year, “Sugar Hill” is the perfect palette cleanser. Great dancing, fantastic music and diverse choreography make this a must see for all ages. If you miss the train to “Sugar Hill,” you’ll miss the quickest way to get to a great show!

“Sugar Hill” runs through Dec. 30 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets are $52-$100 and are available at or by clicking the event link below.