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Review: 'Nutcracker' adds 'Burgh touches to favorite

| Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, 8:12 p.m.
Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz with the corps de ballet in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker'
Rich Sofranko
Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz with the corps de ballet in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker'
Luca Sbrizzi and Gabrielle Thurlow as the Nutcracker and Marie in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcraker.'
Rich Sofranko
Luca Sbrizzi and Gabrielle Thurlow as the Nutcracker and Marie in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcraker.'

There's a lot to love in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of “The Nutcracker,” the holiday favorite about a girl's magical Christmas Eve. The production by company artistic director Terrence Orr was introduced in 2002 and remains an enchanting spectacle.

Performances continue through Dec. 28 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The Tuesday, Dec. 23 matinee will be a sensory-friendly performance, designed for people with autism and other special needs.

Orr reset the story in Pittsburgh, opening on a street in Shadyside in front of a mansion in which most of Act I takes place. The colorful sets are on a grand scale and feature many Pittsburgh references. Elaborate stagecraft, including many excellent magic tricks, adds to the vividness of the story.

Above all, the appeal of the company's dancers brings the show to life, down to the smallest roles. The cast also includes many dozens of supplementary dancers, children and teens, from the ballet's school.

The ballet uses rotating casting for the show, which keeps each role fresh for the performers. It also gives them the chance to play multiple characters over the course of the run, sometimes even at a single performance.

Alexandra Kochis was even more delightful as Marie than the last time I saw her. She is adept as showing many dimensions of her character, not only girlish charm and gracefulness. The speed of her pirouettes was breathtaking at the matinee on Dec. 13.

Her Prince was performed by Christopher Budzynski with characteristic technical brilliance and with an amiability which carried across the footlights. We first encounter him as the nephew of godfather Drosselmeyer, wearing a lightly colored Phantom of the Opera mask until he is transformed first into the Nutcracker and, then, her prince.

Stephen Hadala was superb as Drosselmeyer, both in pantomime and assured dancing.

Two other couples have especially prominent, if much briefer, roles. Julia Erickson's bold and precise dancing commanded the stage as the Snow Queen, with fine support from Alexandre Silva as the Snow King. Orr's choreography of the Snow Flakes was inspired by watching real snowflakes swirl outside his childhood home, and was beautifully performed by the corps de ballet.

Amanda Cochrane and Nurlan Abougaliev as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier are the hosts in the Land of Enchantment which occupies most of Act II, just as the Christmas Eve party and ensuing fantasy action in the mansion's living room takes up most of Act I.

Their pas de deux just before the fairy tale or dream ends and marie is back home, is the final moment of extended pure dance, before pantomime is used to finish the story telling. They each danced brilliantly in their own variations, and, together, were close partners for the opening and conclusion of the pas de deux.

Orr's choreography is even more generously filled in than the sets. Many other dancers were remarkable Saturday afternoon, including Luca Sbrizzi as the frail Grandfather improbably dancing the Funky Chicken and a Moonwalk. Cooper Walker and Danielle Downey were wonderfully angular and rhythmic as the Harlequin and Columbina, two more of Drosselmeyer's magically animated figures. Downey's virtuosity included rotating in and out on pointe.

The six characteristic dances in Act II were all well-performed, though it was dismaying to see the choreography dissipate the energy of the Russian dance at the end.

The production's continuing disappointment is the use of a recording by a mediocre orchestra of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's wonderful score. It even misses much of the magic of the celesta by being much too loud for what is a softly charming instrumental part. It's not that Tchaikovsky's irrepressible music loses all its beauty and charm. But the recording is not even close to the plane of excellence achieved by the dancers.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of “The Nutcracker” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Dec. 18, 7 p.m. Dec. 19 and 26, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 20, 21, 23, and 27, 2 p.m. Dec. 24, and noon Dec. 28 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $27 to $112. Details: 412-456-666 or pbt.org

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

Some nuttier ‘Nutcrackers'

As popular as the original version of Tchaikovsky's “The Nutcracker” is every season, there has been no shortage of variations on its themes over the years, starting with its use in Walt Disney's “Fantasia” in 1940.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's version of “The Nutcracker” is by artistic director Terrance S. Orr, which moves the story to Pittsburgh and features Orr's updating of original choreography by Marius Petipa.

Here are some more unusual variations:

“George Balanchine's The Nutcracker”: The great choreographer gets his name in the title of the 1993 film, but it's remembered mostly for its use of a dour Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker and Prince.

“The Nutcracker on Ice”: A number of skating shows have since used the title, but the first TV special to add skates to the score was the 1983 “The Nutcracker: A Fantasy on Ice,” with Dorothy Hamill in the lead role and narration by Lorne Greene.

“Care Bears: The Nutcracker”: Seen on the Disney Channel, this 1988 attempt featured the teddy bears who wear their personalities on their bellies.

“Nut Rocker”: A boogie-piano instrumental arrangement of the “March,” performed by B. Bumble and the Stingers, hit the Top 25 in 1962, becoming the highest-charting single of “Nutcracker” music.

“Nutcracker Fantasy”: The 1979 stop-motion puppet version of the story included Christopher Lee lending his voice as Drosselmeyer and Melissa Gilbert as Clara.

“The Nutcracker in 3-D”: A poorly reviewed big-screen version in 2009 featured John Turturro as the Rat King heading an oddly SS-style rodent army. It also starred Elle Fanning and Nathan Lane.

“Barbie in the Nutcracker”: A 2001 release put the digitally animated, unusually proportioned doll in the Clara role.

“The Nuttiest Nutcracker”: This 1999 straight-to-video CGI-version comedy featured the voice of Phyllis Diller as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“The Hard Nut”: The Mark Morris-choreographed version with a visual style inspired by cartoonist Charles Burns, broadcast on PBS in 1991, was a three-time winner in Ovation TV's annual “Battle of the Nutcrackers.”

“The Slutcracker”: The inevitable burlesque version is a hit in Somerville, Mass., where its seventh season started last week, hitting its 100th performance Dec. 19.

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