Being Mother Ginger: The Biggest Little Part in “The Nutcracker”

This Christmas season, the Toledo Ballet continues its annual performance tradition of The Nutcracker. The company’s 83rd production makes it the longest running string of performances in North America.

The ballet, based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, was adapted by Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s score. The ballet was written just after Tchaikovsky completed Sleeping Beauty and, while both are fairy tales, The Nutcracker is filled with more fanciful characters, set at Christmas time.

Every year, Toledo’s production of The Nutcracker features one local celebrity to play the iconic role of Mother Ginger, connecting the community to the arts in a fun-loving way.

Mother Ginger in the Land of Sweets

The ballet tells the story of a little girl,  Clara, who is gifted a nutcracker on Christmas Eve. She falls in love with the object and sleeps with the toy in her arms. Dreaming of herself in a land of mice led by the Mouse King with whom the Nutcracker must battle, Clara attempts to save the Nutcracker, who turns into a prince. The performance’s second act places Clara and the prince in the Land of Sweets, celebrating victory over the Mouse King, and introduces Mother Ginger. 

Historically, Mother Ginger was included in the story as comic relief for some of the darker aspects of the ballet. Depicted as a giant lady in a large, hooped skirt, a la 1700’s Marie Antionette, everything about her is big and flamboyant, from her rosy cheeks and white-powdered face to her oversized bonnet, as her children run out from beneath her skirt.. 

Playing Mother Ginger

Throughout the years, performances by the Toledo Ballet have cast a man as Mother Ginger for several reasons. At the time that the ballet was written, the Russians were poking fun at the French, hence the over-the-top French design of the original costume. The role is also more amusing when a man plays it, and due to the costume being so large and cumbersome, a larger person is needed to maneuver it on stage. 

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Annually, the Toledo Ballet selects a community member to play the role, usually inviting a highly visible individual, well-known to Toledoans, for the role. Recent past invitees have included Joe Napoli, Jerry Anderson, Steve Cavanaugh, Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, and TV anchorwoman Chrys Peterson. 

Asked about her community exposure for many years as a local news anchor as a factor leading to her invitation to play the part, Peterson laughs and humbly says, “Well, [I’m] not really famous, . . . I would say they [the Ballet] choose[s] someone notable from the community, who they think will really have fun with it but, of course, working in television [could have been] an added factor.”  Peterson went on to describe prepping for the part without any formal rehearsals, saying, “You’re on this huge platform, up in the air about 12 feet,  wearing the bodice of the gown, your head is in a bonnet and your arms are in these big sleeves. The platform is supported by scaffolding to [allow you to] roll you around and all the little children come out from under the dress.”  

Meant to make you laugh

Peterson explains that the role is meant to be funny and to make everyone laugh. “Your role is just being hilarious while you’re up there in the costume – 12 feet in the air – hamming it up as much as you can. You look around at all the people, wave and powder your face with a gigantic powder puff. Once you’re out there for four minutes, it’s over, and you wish you could do it again!”

This year, Shaun E. Graham, Assistant General Counsel at Marathon Petroleum Company LP will perform Friday, Dec. 8 at 10:30am. Andrew Newby, CEO and Co-Founder of The Toledo Spirits Company and HEAVY Beer Company, will perform on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 2pm. Michael Ellison, Ph.D, Associate Professor Emeritus from Bowling Green State University will perform on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 7pm. Patrick E. Bowe, President & CEO of The Andersons, will perform on Sunday, Dec. 10 at 2pm.

For the character of Mother Ginger, the emphasis is on fun and having a well-known person from the community on stage acts as a bridge between the audience and the ballet itself, inviting everyone to be involved. That is another reason that the Toledo Ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker has kept audiences coming for decades.

The Nutcracker runs Saturday, Dec. 9 at 2 pm and 7 pm, and Sunday, Dec. 10 at 2 pm at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. 419-246-8000.

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