As Ballet West debuted its $3 million makeover of costumes and sets of its beloved “Nutcracker” by founder Willam Christensen, theatergoers reacted with the kind of enthusiasm typically reserved for a brand-new ballet — and in fact this production felt like all that was old is new again.
Act I opens on a wintry Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum family holiday party. The new set begins with a big-picture view of the street that lifts away to place us outside the Stahlbaums’ front door with snow falling on Christmas carolers and a street vendor, while inside children and adults celebrate in excited anticipation. The iconic scene of children dancing and parents keeping after them has been fun-filled and entertaining ever since Christensen opened his “Nutcracker” in Utah in 1955.
Yet this year the scene is particularly witty, crisp and enchanting. Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum welcome each guest onto stage individually as they arrive at the party — the men in handsome black formal wear and the women in scintillating dresses made of rich, beautiful fabrics with matching headpieces and hats. Snow can be seen falling through the window as the party proceeds, which creates depth in the set, while other innovations offer a fresh perspective on the scene that engenders dramatic change. It was brilliant to keep the grandfather clock as the only remaining set piece — it somehow fits better in the new than the old design. The color palette for costumes, sets and lighting is synergetic and pleasingly new.
On opening night the cast was exuberant; each expression, dance step, bit of humor and swell of sentimentality was heightened. I can only guess that performers are inspired when local arts advocates courageously invest in them. And it must feel wonderful to be the first to step onto a set calculated for your performance in a costume specific to your proportion.
Character development and timing appear to be so well coached by the Ballet West artistic staff that Act I is now a lively piece of theater in addition to being a ballet. Such party-guest roles as the wife who is irritated by her husband’s tardiness were thoroughly developed and carried to completion. When the husband shrugs with a guilty grimace, it looks genuine. And the children from dance studios across the Intermountain West excelled throughout the performance, adjusting to costume changes like little pros.
The giant mice were magnificent and hilarious. Their extra-furry costumes, longer thicker tails, and blank-eyed expressions merged with the gorgeous Tchaikovsky score blending humor and sorrow to form pathos.
Dancer Beau Pearson as Dr. Drosselmeyer can only be described as virtuosic. Pearson has redefined Drosselmeyer as a 17th-century Keith Richards with extraordinary powers — it is a scene stealer.
Closing Act I is the beautiful Snow pas de deux, and Catherine Lawrence and Rex Tilton were magical on opening night. The orchestra was pushing the tempos in Act I, and Waltz of the Snowflakes (one of the most familiar of the Tchaikovsky score) came at a fast clip — yet even through the quick-stepping emboîtés the corps was precise and kept pace.
Act II takes place in the Land of the Sweets. The exotic set is a replica of the original Mariinsky Theatre set in Saint Petersburg where Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov choreographed the first “Nutcracker” in 1892. Ballet West’s 2017 version brings exciting special effects, and the tutus for each pas de deux were dazzling with tiaras perfectly balanced in proportion.
Each divertissement was strong. The Mirlitons were sharp and Jenna Rae Herrera perfectly executed the technically difficult pirouette into the attitude turn.
Emily Adams was lush in Waltz of the Flowers, and Chris Sellars made Russian an audience favorite. Bringing back the three tapestries in Arabian got the strong audience reaction it should as the woman magically disappeared.
Last but far from least, Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell were spectacular as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Sisk danced with abandon, interpreting movement rather than executing it. She has created a style of her own, defined by her phrasing, timing and precision. O’Connell owned his length and took the time to fully finish each phrase with strength. It seemed almost apparent that Sisk and O’Connell are a romantic couple on and off the stage. In each posé the line of their arms and legs matched as if their bodies were one.
Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”
A must-see for its dramatic and theatrical intelligence in Act I, and exquisite dancing in Act II. New sets and costumes alone are worth a trip to the Capitol Theatre.
When • Reviewed Dec. 2; continues through Dec. 30; evening showtimes at 7 p.m., with additional matinees; check balletwest.org/events/nutcracker2017 for showtimes
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20-$88, at ArtTix outlets, 801-869-6920 or balletwest.org
Sugar Plum Party • Through Dec. 30 after most matinee performances; join the Sugar Plum Fairy and friends onstage for cookies and punch, an ornament and photo; $11