THEATER REVIEW By Dalt Wonk 01 06 04

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Stepping under the large metal sign that announces "The NORD Ty Tracy Theater" to attend The Pecan Cracker was a bittersweet experience. For, what had been an extraordinary gesture by the city to honor a living hero had become -- with Tracy's death on Dec. 24th -- simply a memorial. Tracy, who received a Big Easy Entertainment Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, helmed and shaped the NORD theater program for 43 years. His loss, of course, was the bitter part. The sweet comes from the knowledge that Tracy -- if he did not die with grease paint still wet on his face, like Moliere and Caruso -- was nonetheless in the full fury of what he loved best: putting together an original musical in the company of his old friends and a host of promising young people.

Ricky Graham, co-author of The Pecan Cracker, was an adolescent misfit at Chalmette High School when he discovered a sanctuary called NORD Theater. Graham all but moved in. It was a formative, life-changing experience for him, as it was for so many others. Bob Bruce, Tracy's longtime companion and indispensable colleague, was Graham's writing partner. What could be more fitting.

The Pecan Cracker takes us to familiar territory -- St. Bernard Parish -- where The Anthony (that's "Ant-knee") Kleinpeter School of Dancing in cooperation with the Yclosky Amateur Theatrical Society, or Y.A.T.S., is presenting their annual Christmas recital.

Mr. Ant-knee (Rudy Rasmussen) wears red short-shorts over black tights and seems in all ways perfectly fitted for the job of choreographing a bunch of fairies, sugar plum or otherwise. His able assistant is a muscular Ukrainian named Svetlana Somonovich (Carlos Gonzales), who owes her indeterminate gender to the Commissariat of Sports, which administered steroids in the hopes of producing a champion woman weightlifter, before reassigning the poor girl to the Bolshoi. As a result, Svetlana sounds, as one dancer puts it (in a typically local-flavored one-liner), "like Buddy Diliberto playin' Dracula!"

The drama behind the drama concerns a battle of wills between the Prima Ballerina, Tammi LaBarre (Diane Macera) and stage mother Lorraine Genovese (Gia Rabito), who'd like to push her daughter, Victoria (Maryclaire Manard), into center stage. LaBarre is almost sidelined by an accident, but decides to perform sans crutches in the great "never-give-up-the-spotlight" tradition. However, she is ultimately floored by an allergy to nuts. This creates an opening for young Victoria -- who has, however, unfortunately come down with chicken pox, which leaves her face pasty from Calamine lotion. Meanwhile, good-old-boy Frank Buras (Terrell Robinson) gamely fills out the "corpse de ballet." Assistant to the Director Margie Bourgeois (Helen Blanke) tries to create a semblance of order. And reporter Samantha Levine (Joan Blum) effuses and confuses.

In the second act, we see the actual performance, which takes place in front of a backdrop showing a cozy house "nestled between the Kaiser aluminum plant and Murphy oil refinery." The show's a raggedy affair, interrupted now and then, by commercial announcements from contributing sponsors, like Haydell's pharmacy, "forty forty-seven Jefferson Highway."

The 19 song numbers (set for the most part to bits of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite as reinterpreted by piano and drum) bear names such as "Dance of the Praline Fairies," "Dance of the Pecan Log Fairies," "Christmas in Chalmette" and "Kajun Kringle." And we get to see the exciting battle between the hip-hop Soldier Boyz and the Nutria-Sweets.

All in all, it's a pretty flimsy frolic: good-natured silliness with, here and there, flashes of inspiration, like the mock-heroic "Football Calls to Me" number or the holiday-eating lament, with its plangent chorus, "We get bigger, lose our figger."

If one were to rank The Pecan Cracker in NORD Theater history, it probably would not be very high on the list. But coming when it did -- as the last show Ty Tracy would ever direct -- put it in a special light. For, though it was not the most accomplished of the many originals that NORD produced, it nonetheless captured much of the Tracy spirit. For there is something simple, accessible and fostering in the little auditorium that bears his name. Something happily and wholesomely unpretentious and un-bureaucratic. Something that both challenges and forgives.

And in that sense, this very slight bagatelle with its mixture of veteran actors and neophytes, its bursts of wit and barrages of local in-jokes, seems a not-unfitting final curtain to Tracy's amazing career as a teacher and director. The poet e.e. cummings wrote of his father, who was also a teacher, "He woke sleeping selves to swarm their fates." I can't think of a more fitting epitaph for the bantam dynamo that sustained this most open-hearted of community theaters for more than four decades.