“THE NUTCRACKER,” through Dec. 30, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6900 or balletwest.org); running time 1 hour, 53 minutes with one intermission.
SALT LAKE CITY — As Ballet West unveiled a renovated “Nutcracker” for the first time Saturday night, the question on the minds of many longtime patrons seemed to be whether or not so much “newness” would uphold the integrity of Ballet West founder Willam Christensen's (“Mr. C’s”) iconic ballet.
While the splendor and decadence that a $3 million overhaul brought to the production was mesmerizing, Ballet West also played it smart by preserving and even restoring some of the quaint charm of the original version.
Most importantly, Mr. C’s choreography remained intact, with the dancers elevating even the simplest of steps with polish and panache. The new costumes, props, sets and special effects have indeed helped the production find its way into the 21st century, while still paying homage to the heirloom that is “The Nutcracker.”
The production’s new sets by John Wayne Cook include the addition of Dr. Drosselmeyer’s shop along a charming, snow-covered street. Also new in Act I is a gorgeous exterior view of the Stahlbaum residence, home of Clara and Fritz, where audiences glimpse party preparations underway inside while carolers greet guests and shiver in the snow.
Replacing the old cotton candy-colored pink and purple set in Act II, Cook’s new Land of Sweets — where Clara watches a magical swirl of dancers perform — in many ways replicates the very first “Nutcracker” performed in Russia in 1892. Palms frame the stage, which features a French castle next to a domed Ottoman palace and a Chinese pagoda comfortably neighboring the onion domes of a Russian palace. In a bit of whimsy, our own Utah landmark, Saltair, has been added into the tableaux.
David Heuvel’s costume designs include luxurious new fabrics and millinery for the women at the party in Act II, beautiful attire for the children and black ties and tails for the men. The life-sized Nutcracker has a more vintage look about him, with the woodgrain visible on his face and his royal blue uniform gleaming with a varnished sheen.
Perhaps most vintage-inspired of all are the Snowflakes: the corps dancers of the snow scene, led with aplomb by Katherine Lawrence and Rex Tilton. During the scene, in which a live choir sings from below and snow falls from above, women wear knee-length shimmering blue gowns and hold pom-pom branches in a nod to the original Ballet West production.
Act II’s new costumes include a fresh look for the ensemble in Waltz of the Flowers, where color groupings create a bouquet of bell-shaped tutus layered with petals. The lead flower, danced by Emily Adams (in a lovely partnering with Adrian Fry), wore a sleek green bodice and wispy skirt — a surprisingly minimalist costume for the lead, especially against the ornate attire of the ensemble.
There are several new characters in the production, such as monkeys complete with full head masks replacing the Oriental Servants and bumble bees replacing the tiny Buffoons. Mother Buffoon is still as comedic and feather-brained as ever, her dress now black and gold and her large ruffled skirt resembling a beehive.
The exotic variations: Spanish, Chinese and Arabian dancers, seem less changed, and the Russian dancers even wear the original design that dates back to Mr. C’s trepak dance during his vaudeville days.
The Sugar Plum Fairy — danced with grace, precision and animation by Beckanne Sisk — wore a pale pink, crystal-studded tutu and bodice with an accompanying cloak with matching butterfly wings. Her cavalier, expertly danced by Chase O’Connell, wore pale pink as well.
The lead couple’s all-important Grand Pas De Deux still includes the variations and the coda to show off — which it certainly did — the prowess of both O’Connell and Sisk. O’Connell's soaring jumps, pirouettes and fast-tempo footwork were executed with easy bravado, and Sisk’s fouette turns, among other feats of dramatic balance and brilliant extension, were, as always, jaw-dropping.
New special effects include projections of “magical dust” that swirl along, transforming things like ornaments and Christmas trees. The tree now looks less like it’s growing and more like the audience is shrinking with a 3-D effect that nestles us cozily under the giant evergreen boughs. The more ornate cannon during the fight scene still sends shivers down spines when it blows, but the Nutcracker Prince’s sleigh garners the greatest gasps when it flies through the sky as Clara is transported home.
Some special pieces remain for sentiment: the blue and gold grandfather clock, in which Dr. Drosselmeyer's face appears comedically, his head cocking in time with the 12 gongs of midnight. The remote-controlled mouse that zooms across stage also makes its appearance. But other props and set pieces — such as the party girls' dolls in Act I or the staffs held by the Ladies-in-Waiting — have received lavish replacements.
If you’re worried that Ballet West’s re-imagined “Nutcracker” has lost its quintessential quaintness — don’t be. It’s still as magical, charming and nostalgic as before — just with a fresh coat of paint and a new bit of polish.