With tap dancing reindeers and characters named Uncle Spats and Lady Showoff, Old Town School of Folk Music’s version of “The Nutcracker” throws tradition out the window, and in the process has become a tradition of its own.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Reginald “Reggio” McLaughlin created “The Nut Tapper” for Old Town School, swapping out ballet for tap dance and jettisoning Tchaikovsky’s iconic score in favor of big band tunes.
At this point, “The Nut Tapper” has become as beloved as the original, something McLaughlin finds astounding.
“When I first did it, I never ever thought I would be doing it this long,” said McLaughlin, who oversees all aspects of the show. “Now everybody’s like, ‘It’s Nut Tapper time, it’s Nut Tapper time.’”
Updating a classic is a daunting undertaking regardless of circumstances, but for McLaughlin, the task was made even more challenging for a very simple reason.
“I had never seen ‘The Nutcracker,’” McLaughlin said, laughing at his own naivete.
At the time, McLaughlin was an ambitious young dancer who’d just started teaching tap at Old Town School in the 1990s. The ballet was completely foreign to the hoofer, who got his start tapping in the subway.
But he was eager to develop a showcase for himself and his students, so when Old Town administrators suggested McLaughlin create a tap version of “The Nutcracker,” he readily agreed, and then promptly headed to the library to check out every videotape of the show he could find.
Coming to the story completely cold, his reaction was: “Man, I don’t understand this.”
The plot didn’t become any less inscrutable when McLaughlin caught a live performance by the Joffrey, and ultimately that’s what helped shape his own take.
“The Nut Tapper,” in a significant departure from the ballet, has a narrator to break down the action.
“I went and got a cutting-edge poet and said, ‘We’re going to spice this up, Chicago-style. We’re going to make this hip and fun,’” McLaughlin recalled. “We keep the basic story, but we do a lot of improvising, we tell a lot of jokes.”
And then there’s the dancing, which is what really gives “The Nut Tapper” its edge.
“Tap has more freedom. With ballet, you’ve got to pose and point your feet. With tap, you’ve just got to beat out some rhythm and sound. It’s more natural. Tap is more of a sound and a body in motion. That rhythmic foot movement adds another dimension,” McLaughlin said.
The Christmas Eve party that opens “The Nutcracker,” for example, becomes a tap jam in McLaughlin’s show. And the second act’s Land of Sweets sequence — where the ballet features dances from Arabia, China and Spain — is transformed into a showcase for global styles of percussive dance. Over the years, McLaughlin has recruited guest artists who specialize in Spanish flamenco, Mexican zapateado and Indian kathak.
“Dance is a universal language,” McLaughlin said. “People make an instant connection.”
For many in the audience, “The Nut Tapper” is the first time they’ve seen a live tap performance, and the joy of the dancers, who are a mix of professionals and students, is contagious, said McLaughlin.
“You can see they love what they’re doing. They vibrate,” he said.
In addition to the scheduled performance at Old Town School, “The Nut Tapper” also plays to groups of students on field trips. After all these years, youngsters’ reaction to tap remains the same, McLaughlin said.
“Kids like to hear the clickety-clack.”
Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.