Illusionist Drew Thomas was so pumped about beginning rehearsals for “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” that he wore a Victorian magician’s costume all the way from Jamaica, where he had been staging his long-running show on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, to Atlanta earlier this month.
After causing countless double takes and posing for numerous photos with intrigued strangers at every stop along the way, he made his grand entrance into the Atlanta Ballet rehearsal studio.
“Ta-da!” he blurted. “Let’s do this!”
The assembled dancers, utterly jet-lagged from having just returned from a two-week performance tour of China, smiled wearily and chuckled.
“It was a little surreal,” said Alessa Rogers, one of four sharing the lead role of Marya. “We’re like, ‘Is this guy going to be a little cuckoo?’ But despite his top hat, he was very down to earth.”
The Atlanta company members got a taste of Thomas’ ardent act last year, when he taught the dancers cast as the mysterious toymaker Drosselmeyer a half-dozen tricks that greatly enlivened the warhorse holiday ballet.
His magic touch was evident from the very start, when Drosselmeyer’s handkerchief blew off the stage and flew out over the audience, seemingly on its own power, and when — poof! — a mini-Nutcracker was transformed into a life-size one.
It marked a creative reunion of sorts between the magician and Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall. Though he had no dance training, Thomas danced and performed magic as Drosselmeyer at BalletMet from 1987 to 1991, when McFall was leading that Columbus, Ohio, company.
As far as either knows, it’s the only time a magician has had a dancing role in “Nutcracker.”
Thomas, whose profile widened when he made the finals of the TV show “America’s Got Talent” in 2009, had such a blast playing Drosselmeyer that he’s never stopped hoping for an encore. In fact, the magician — whose dark eyebrows naturally arch in a way that seems to silently ask, “How’d you like that trick, people?” — used an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview during rehearsals last year to boldly lobby for the role.
“Those five years of (performing as Drosselmeyer) were one of the most festive and exciting times of my life,” the vegetarian explained between bites of a falafel wrap during a rehearsal break this month. “Because you’re bringing so much joy to so many people. It’s infectious, it’s amazing. It’s the real meaning of magic.”
Still he was surprised when McFall yielded to his Uri Geller-like powers of suggestion and asked him to take on the role of Drosselmeyer for this year’s run, Dec. 6-29 at the Fox Theatre.
Thomas believes the Atlanta Ballet performance will be groundbreaking and conceivably could cause other major companies to seek magicians to outfit in Drosselmeyer’s cape. But noting that he and McFall have an easy creative give-and-take forged more than 25 years ago, he cautioned that other magic-dance marriages “won’t automatically be made in heaven.”
“This is John’s vision,” he continued, “John’s understanding, John’s willingness to allow this to be born and give it wings.”
As far as what McFall has given wing to, Thomas is keeping the dozen new illusions that will be added to last year’s under wraps. He shared only that Drosselmeyer’s presence has been beefed up (in part to bring more hocus-pocus to Act 2), that his sweeping cape will serve as his wand, that the Nutcracker and Mouse King have new magic-enhanced entrances and that a notable character may levitate.
Short of levitation, Rogers does get lifted by Thomas, which naturally made her initially a tad concerned about the magician’s lack of dance training. She offered to make an adjustment that would lighten the lift, but found Thomas to be so strong — perhaps from hoisting his “Sensational Angels” assistants during his cruise show — that he didn’t need the assist.
“I guess (more of a) challenge came in making the transitions into and out of the lifts a little more fluid and graceful than you might need in a magic show, where it doesn’t matter if you just chuck the girl off of you,” Rogers said.
Thomas also had to learn how to put Rogers and the three other dancers portraying Marya down on their right or left legs, depending on which step follows the lift.
“But he’s such a quick learner, and he’s been really open to everything we have to say,” Rogers said. “After every time we do something together, he (asks), ‘Honestly, how was that? Can I do anything better to help you out?’”
Budget considerations dictated that Thomas will dance the role for the run’s first two weeks, then will be replaced by company dancers John Welker and Jesse Tyler. But before he wraps on Dec. 15, he’ll be seemingly everywhere, appearing in the Children’s Christmas Parade in Midtown on Dec. 7 and in separately ticketed Fox Theatre tours two hours before select performances. He’ll also greet and take photos with guests during free preshow appearances on the Fox mezzanine.
The toymaker is depicted as highly eccentric in some “Nutcracker” productions. In contrast, Thomas plans to emphasize Drosselmeyer’s humanity, wanting to come off as as an “almost godfatherlike character” to Marya.
“I believe (audience members) are going to go away thinking he’s mysterious and very fanciful but also very approachable,” Thomas said. “I believe they’re going to want to meet me.”
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