Hundreds of droning voices trickled off as the lights dimmed inside the University of Wyoming Performing Arts Building.
An older gentlemen, Dr. Michael Griffith, dressed in formal attire stepped onto the conductor’s pulpit below the stage, bowed to the crowd, spun round and raised his arms.
Hidden from view, instruments hummed to life and the silent theater quickly filled with the harmony of strings, percussion and brass instruments.
As the opening number of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” enveloped us, my wife, Shandra, squeezed my arm, a giddy smile upon her lips.
While this would not be our first live-theater experience, neither of us had attended a performance since grade-school, nearly three decades ago.
With all the activities available in the Laramie Valley, it can be easy to overlook the bustling cultural arts community thriving a mere two blocks from our home. We’ve attended numerous events at the university, but somehow, we never managed to fit a play into our busy lives.
Between our jobs, neither a simple 9-5 affair, our kids and our hobbies, finding time for the whole family to sit down for two hours in the same room can be challenging. When it does happen, our children often have a long list of movies they’ve been waiting to watch at home, or we saunter over to the movie theater and catch a blockbuster. This is all to say, the vast majority of our viewing experience has been relegated to a screen of some form or another.
Because of recent upgrades to movie theater sound systems, the surround-sound effect of the orchestra did not take me by surprise as it might have 15 years ago. However, I did not expect to feel the music. Violins, clarinets and trumpets slipped into my ears soothingly, enticing me into the performance like a pleasant dream. In comparison, the music and effects one might hear in a movie theater are more of an assault on the senses, battering you into the experience.
But by far, the most dazzling aspect of the show was watching it unfold in real time, in real space.
I’ve become so used to the silver screen’s magnified, two-dimensional world that I spent more time than I care to admit in awe of the three-dimensional characters flitting across the stage.
Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” is so voraciously popular this time of year, that it’s nearly impossible to set foot outside your home without hearing “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” or “Waltz of the Flowers” playing on the radio, at the store or blaring across a parade float. So, the music was not unfamiliar, but seeing the actors and dancers bring these songs to life was a sheer delight.
The imagery of the “Nutcracker,” too, is commonplace during the holidays. But UW’s version of the Christmas classic was infused with local flavor.
Instead of an ancient aristocrat’s home, the performance was set in the Ivinson Mansion, the family home of Edward and Jane Ivinson who helped transform Laramie from a ragged hell on wheels into the “Gem City of the Plains.”
Rather than the white-haired, bearded army officers of the 19th century, the nutcrackers were frontier calvary, the mice were gunslingers and Herr Drosselmeyer’s attendants were young cowboys.
It was wonderfully Wyoming, and though ten thousand or more Americans were likely watching the same play, listening to the same music at the same time in playhouses throughout the country, I had the distinct impression I was experiencing something unique.
UW Professor of Dance Marsha Knight said the production didn’t start out that way.
“We started in its first iteration in 1988,” Knight explained. “It was a simple production with simple technical features and borrowed costumes.”
The play went well, but little thought was given to running it again anytime soon. In 1994, it was revived and in ’98 the orchestra was included and the production was added to the Department of Theatre and Dance’s four-year schedule.
“Part of the idea behind a four-year cycle is to benefit our performing artists and students with experiencing a piece they would likely encounter in their post-undergraduate careers,” Knight said. “It’s also a great boon to the community, because many places do it every year, but I think there is a heightened enthusiasm here in Laramie for the “Nutcracker” years.
In 2006, the creative design team suggested adding a Laramie twist to the story, and Knight said the audience was quite receptive.
“I think it means something to people,” she said. “I think attendees have come to expect that’s how our production is.”
For Shandra and I, the localization allowed us an entry into a foreign world. We didn’t know much about ballet, live theater or interpretive choreography, but the western theme provided us a gateway into this brilliant, new world.
Whatever brings you to Laramie, visiting an event hosted by UW’s thriving arts community is a must. If you have the opportunity to attend a Department of Theatre and Dance production, you’re in for an unforgettable treat. While several activities are planned throughout the coming months, Knight said the next major production she is involved with occurs in April.
“It’s a musical called ‘The Robber Bridegroom,’” she said. “It’s a kind of a bluegrass-style musical. I am a Virginian by upbringing, so I’m excited to work within that style. It’s a little darker and more complex, interesting and convoluted.”
Tickets and showtimes for UW productions can be found at www.uwyo.edu/finearts.