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Review: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre spruces up a holiday classic

Even established favorite shows can benefit from freshening with new elements. This season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of "The Nutcracker" -- by its artistic director Terrence S. Orr -- has been spruced up.

The production has been seen annually since 2002 and retains it charm and power to excite the heart. It is a Pittsburgh "Nutcracker" even before the ballet begins, with a proscenium clock modeled after the one on the old Downtown Kaufmann's store and retained by Macy's. The action takes place on Christmas Eve in a Shadyside home where Marie and her family live, while the action at the end of Act I has as its backdrop a view of Pittsburgh as seen from Mt. Washington.

The introductory scenes are hardly throwaways, introducing us to Drosselmeyer, a maker of magical toys and his nephew on the street outside the house, and Marie and her parents in her room. At Friday night's performance, Alexandra Kochis provided a masterly portrayal of Marie, a girl at the start of the story who becomes a young woman by its end.

Orr changed many elements of his staging of the ensuing party and battle scenes. The party scene felt much less like the divertissement of the second act in Orr's new version than the old version. I like the multiple actions he set going simultaneously -- such as adults doing a round dance on the left while Drosselmeyer entertains the kids by the staircase to the right -- but some friends found it too busy.

Orr's new staging of the battle between rats and toy soldiers gained a surrealistic backdrop and new order of battle. This is the scene where Drosselmeyer's soldier Nutcracker, a gift to Marie, leads the fight against the rats. After Marie's help kills the Rat King, Christopher Budzynski became transformed from Nutcracker to Prince, and Marie experiences romance for the first time.

It was smart to partner Kochis with Budzynski as the romantic couple because their dancing together exuded a natural joy in movement throughout the ballet. In real life, the dancers are married.

The end of the first act was superbly performed Friday night by Erin Halloran as the Snow Queen and the swirling troupe of Snow Flakes.

Most of the second act takes place in the Land of Enchantment, where Marie and her Prince preside over a festival of dancing. The choreography of the Waltz of the Flowers created its most sweeping feeling when Kochis and Budzynski joined the dance at the end, after the Flowers had more separation to the phrases.

The characteristic dances mainly charmed as expected, although on Friday night the Russian Dance felt staid.

Julia Erickson and Robert Moore were a highlight as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, performing with physical vitality and inner glow.

The upgrading Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "Nutcracker" needs most now is restoration of live orchestral performance. Young people especially should be able to hear the charm and power of a live orchestra playing Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's immortal score. The ballet's orchestra also is much better than the one on the recording the company uses for "The Nutcracker."

Additional Information:

'The Nutcracker'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Dec. 21-22; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 23; noon and 4:30 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 26

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Admission: $20.75-$90.75

Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org

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