‘The Nutcracker Rocks’ puts a Jersey spin on the holiday classic, with musical contributions from Gaslight Anthem

Actor and former 'Survivor' contestant Josh Canfield stars in The Nutcracker Rocks, a modern take on a timeless holiday classic.

Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater (AXCBT) returns to Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Ocean Township from Dec. 2-11 with The Nutcracker Rocks. Part of the appeal of this version of The Nutcracker, at least for us Garden Staters, is the integration of Jersey locations into the performance, and musical adornments provided by Alex Rosamilia and Alex Levine of Gaslight Anthem.

The ballet is conceived, choreographed and directed by AXCBT Artistic Director Gabriel Chajnik and stars actor and former CBS Survivor contestant Josh Canfield as Clara’s eccentric rocker Uncle Drosselmeyer. I chatted with Canfield recently about the upcoming performances at Axelrod PAC, his approach to the role of Uncle Dross and his thoughts on this spin on the classic story.

What has it been like working on The Nutcracker Rocks? Can you tell us a bit more about your character and how you connect with it?

This is now my second year doing The Nutcracker Rocks. Last year was mainly about figuring out Uncle Dross’ character and how it was going to fit into the world that Gabriel had created. Bringing a musical theater sensibility to a show that’s normally strictly a ballet offered a unique challenge. I do a lot of storytelling through talking and singing in the show, and last year I had the chance to explore what worked and what didn’t, and how we can mesh all these different art forms together, which was really exciting.

Photo credit: L. Morgan Lee

This year, I jumped in last minute. Luckily when I popped back into rehearsals, it all came rushing back. I quickly remembered my blocking, remembered the dances. This year has been a little more fun so far in the sense that I don’t have to study too hard, and I already know a lot of the cast. It feels a bit like coming home to some kind of family whereas last year was more about figuring everything out.

In The Nutcracker Rocks, Uncle Dross (Drosselmeyer in the original) and Clara are very close; he’s been away for a long time and they rekindle their connection throughout the show. Uncle Dross is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy who gets in trouble because he’s very impulsive and just wants to have a good time. He’s a rocker who plays the guitar, was in a band, and followed that dream but hasn’t been that successful, and he’s more happy-go-lucky than spooky, unlike the original Drosselmeyer. His choices aren’t always fun for everyone, and as a result, he doesn’t have a great relationship with his brother, Clara’s dad. Imagine the artsy uncle who is always like, ‘Hey, you got $20?’

What’s it like to return to the role with another year of living under your belt? Do you continue to discover new possibilities as you rehearse your part?

Last year was exciting because it was my first show back after the pandemic. This year, because I stepped in last minute, the process has been really short. I haven’t had much time yet to really dive in and discover new things, but anytime you’re doing live theater, there’s always that possibility of finding new things in the character, the song, the dance. Those discoveries always happen if you’re open to them. I’m looking forward to finding new moments with Clara as we interact, and discovering what else about this version of Uncle Dross will help connect to the audience more.

What’s your favorite part of the show and why?

A specific moment doesn’t come to mind, but I really enjoy interacting with Clara and her sister Frida in the first act. The dancer who plays Clara is a very sweet, wonderful and talented human being who I have a great connection with, and we have a lot of fun together on stage. The dancer who plays Frida is a little firecracker and incredible dancer; she’s so fun to watch and great at what she does, and I just enjoy being with these performers on stage, witnessing them doing what they do best.

Courtesy Axelrod PAC

Have you seen the original Nutcracker? How does this rock-and-roll Jersey Shore version compare?

Yes! The last time I saw it was in the winter of 2019 at Lincoln Center. The Nutcracker Rocks definitely still feels like it’s The Nutcracker, which I think is a good thing. It’s the same music with added electric guitars and drums in some sections. You still get the beautiful classical music and some of the dancing is the same as the original, but the whole thing feels more modern. It’s not all new, but there are different takes on some parts, especially in the beginning with the party scene before Clara goes and starts dreaming. It’s really fun to be part of something that’s old and new at the same time. A lot of people are doing that in different shows right now, and I think that’s cool and important. It gives you a sense of familiarity and, simultaneously, the feeling that anything can happen.

What do you think The Gaslight Anthem’s reimaginings of Tchaikovsky’s original score bring to the table?

It ends up adding a treat for the audience’s ear. You’ll be listening to what you’ve heard 100 times and then all of the sudden an electric guitar will take the lead with the melody and you’re like, ‘Woah.’ It’s very different, but it feels good and adds excitement to something familiar. Even if someone hasn’t sat down and listened to the whole Nutcracker Suite, they’ve at least heard it in malls and department stores during the holidays.

How does the show compare to other shows you’ve been part of?

This show is very different from almost anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve never been part of a show whose cast is basically a ballet company and me. Usually, I’m in a cast with a bunch of people that are just like me as far as what they’re doing—musical theater or plays. They’re generally people who are on the same trajectory as me or who I’ve worked with before. The Nutcracker Rocks is so different because it’s mainly a dance company, and then I’m just there like, ‘Hey I’m not in the dance company, but I’m going to sing and act for you.’ I’m always seeking out new challenges, and I’m really happy to be doing something that’s sometimes a little out of my comfort zone and that can push me in some way. The show relies on me (and sometimes Olivia, the dancer who plays Clara) to tell the story through spoken word while everyone else is telling the story through dance.”

The Nutcracker Rocks. Dec. 2-11, Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Ocean Township. Tickets are available for purchase here. through the following link: