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The Graham Cracker: A Nutcracker Parody

“The Nutcracker” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s
“Waltz of the Flowers” Remix by Brian Burrows
“Requiem Prism” by Alibi Music
Directed & choreographed by AMBO company members 
in collaboration with the Dancers

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

I am a curmudgeon about the year-end holiday season, so my taste for traditional stories is limited. Except for Dickens and It’s A Wonderful Life, which embraces the darker undercurrents of the season, I don’t care to revisit the chestnuts every year.

But a parody of the great ballet classic sounds good, even if the parody is deeply undermined by the charm and DEI aspects of this production. You may be moved more by the range in this ensemble and the sweetness of this story than by a traditional take on the Tchaikovsky classic.

It was so sweet that I left the theatre wondering where the nearest candy shop was. The plot takes Clara into a fantasy world in which a war erupts between the forces of chocolate and marshmallows and the parade of dances before the climax features modern candies such as Jelly Bellies. Diabetics beware.

More importantly, Clara (Helena Smith-Pohl) is in love with Marie (Carly Hay), and her fantasy adventure is about her coming to grips with her identity and her feelings. AMBO has emphasized the queer themes that separate this Graham Cracker from its predecessors (this is the 3rd production) and those themes are in the story and in the identity of the performers and the characters. But here is where the sweetness of the tone, and the sense of fun in the staging works to make this production feel anything but subversive. Anyone made uncomfortable by androgyny or non-binary identity would still have to work doubly hard to kick up a genuine ill will, so naturally these expressions folded into the narrative and style of the piece.

Or maybe I’m naive, but even the presence of two popular drag performers to play Drosselmeyer (Mayo’Nays) and Auntie Sugar (Uhstel H. Valentine) seems innocent and charming enough to overcome an objection. Their physical presence as powerful and magical beings provides a sense of security and comfort when conflict is at the forefront of the story, and the choreography and direction allow just enough of the nature of their drag identities to confirm that these are the two people AMBO needs in these roles. If you follow May O’Nays, you will be delighted at the recurring motif of a game of charades with props that is pure MayO’Nays.

There is a core ensemble of adult dancers who exemplify the AMBO sensibility of inclusivity. A full appreciation brushes up against tricky territory for a reviewer in calling out a specific individual because there is a range of body types engaged in telling this story. Short, tall, curvy, angular. A few somewhat match our expectations of the highly disciplined dance physique, but most look like regular folks who are still working their butts off to tell the story through movement and acting. It may not require The Method, but the cast does a good job of doing character work in a broad fashion that is well-suited to the fanciful, fairy-tale tone at work here. 

In Clara’s fantasy world, the conflict between marshmallow and chocolate is militarized, and The Marshmallow General (Candace Kress) and the Chocolate General (Nakoma Ehrhart) lead their forces in battle. Caught in the middle in the best Romeo and Juliet fashion are two lovers, one from each family of sweetness. Jade Frost and MAC dance these roles with plaintive grace and at least one bravura pas de deaux. Although this is Clara’s story, this romance is at the heart of the action. The ambiguity of their gender presentation cuts against the division of brown and white costuming and is well handled. Again, it feels natural.

In the parade of candy dances, AMBO features students from schools in which they have worked: depending on exactly which performance you attend, you may see kids from Noe Middle School, Grace James Academy, and Lincoln Performing Arts Elementary, where this production has been staged. In post-show remarks, Artistic Director Amberly M. Simpson commented on the typical standards for the use of young dancers and how AMBO pushes back against these restrictions. As skilled as many of these performers are, there is not the breathtaking precision and almost superhuman strength and endurance of a “professional” company, but the greater degree of access and acceptance is in line with the AMBO mission.

Collaboration is the guiding principle for this company so the credits are a quilt of multi-hyphenates, but the costumes must have taken a lot of work and look wonderful, and the lighting (by Lindsay Krupski) and projections are integrated effectively into the narrative. Having seen the original The Graham Cracker: A Nutcracker Parody, I can attest that the infusion of queer energy has elevated the production to something special, a message and embrace not just to the queer community but to the community at large. Art reflects society but also can affect change, and The Graham Cracker: A Nutcracker Parody does both in full measure.

For a full program listing the large ensemble and creative team:

The Graham Cracker: A Nutcracker Parody

December 8 -10, 2023 

Ambo Dance Theatre
Lincoln Performing Arts Elementary
930 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM /, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for