Show moves on to another stage

Published December 17, 2006

For the first time since it was introduced to the Tampa Bay area nine years ago, the Chocolate Nutcracker is trying out a new home.

The multicultural adaptation of the Christmas favorite, which showcases professional dancers and local children and a few parents, has moved to the Mahaffey Theater from Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The move has proved challenging and invigorating for the production that is a blend of classical ballet, modern jazz, hip-hop, tap and African dance.

Until last year, the show had been produced by Ruth Eckerd Hall, which meant the facility picked up the cost for rehearsals, costumes, props, backdrops and guest artists' fees. Earlier this year, though, the center announced it would not continue the project. Parents, their children and New York creator LaVerne Reed decided the show must go on, so Reed approached the Mahaffey.

General manager Chris Fahlman was familiar with the production. He had seen it in Clearwater and had been "enchanted."

"It does a great job of incorporating area dance students. It was charming, lots of folks on stage. I thought it was an interesting changeup of the original Nutcracker," Fahlman said. "I saw children performing in wheelchairs. I've never seen such a comprehensive and successful an outreach program as the Chocolate Nutcracker was, so I was delighted to hear from LaVerne."

With no major sponsor, though, Reed and a host of parents have found themselves digging into their pockets and selling concessions, calendars, souvenir programs and tickets to pull off this season's production. They say it's worth it.

"She loves it," Charisse Sorey said of her daughter, Jaquetta, 10, who is participating in the Chocolate Nutcracker for the first time.

"I like to dance. It's nice that they don't judge people by their color. They let everybody in it," said Jaquetta, a student at Academy Prep.

Shari Spicer drives her daughter, Jordan, 11, from Pasco County to weekend rehearsals in St. Petersburg.

"Everyone is so nice and she's learned so much," said Spicer, who is helping sell tickets and designing the playbill.

Barbara Roberts travels from Tampa with her daughter, Adia Hollist, 7.

"This is her fourth year. She doesn't ever want it to end," said Roberts, who also is selling tickets.

"We need people to come out and support it," Reed said.

The $100,000 project has received some outside support. Progress Energy has given $5,000 toward the $35,000 rental fee for the Mahaffey, Reed said. The theater has promoted the performance in its material. Reed said additional promotional help has come from a couple of media outlets. Also, Ruth Eckerd has loaned props and some costumes, though the production must cover the cost of dry cleaning. Money is very tight, Reed said.

"We are doing fundraisers just to have money to fly the artists back and forth, to rent backdrops and props," she said. This year, rehearsals had to move from John Hopkins Middle School to 1st Dance Studio on 66th Street N, because it could not afford to rent the school's spacious facility, Reed said.

Reed, who has a master's in dance education from George Washington University and once had her own dance company and performing arts school, created the Chocolate Nutcracker in 1993. Based loosely on the traditional Nutcracker, it revolves around a little girl's dream. It is set in 1950s Harlem and opens at Claire's parents' annual Christmas party.

Stephanie Chaconas, whose daughter, Zoe, 8, and son, Elias, 13, are performing at the Mahaffey, said everyone involved with production wants the show to continue.

"It's like you become family."