Orr makes 'Nutcracker' magical, as usual
Julia Erickson and Robert Moore perform as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre production of "The Nutcracker."
Stephen Hadala as Drosselmeyer and Alexandra Kochis as Marie in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "The Nutcracker."
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Some people like to tinker, usually with things that have intricate moving parts, like an automobile or a wind-up clock. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence Orr likes to tinker in his own way, but with full-length story ballets. They have moving parts, too. We call them dancers.
With his seemingly inborn theatrical sense, Mr. Orr has always enjoyed putting his own stamp on various classical productions like "Coppelia" or "Swan Lake." But no ballet gives him a greater opportunity, and perhaps more satisfaction, than PBT's annual production of "The Nutcracker."
The lavish Pittsburgh-inspired ballet, conceived by the artistic director and a terrific gift to the city, is hitting its ninth year, but Mr. Orr shows no signs of sitting on his laurels and letting the familiar story unfold as always. He has made a few adjustments each year, most barely noticeable.
But this appears to be the year for "Nutcracker" fans to sit up and take notice, because Mr. Orr has been very busy, as evidenced by opening night at the Benedum Center on Friday evening.
His "Nutcracker" always centers around the magic (the operative word for children around this time of the year) and the most visible magic is created by Herr Drosselmeyer, played with a sophisticated charm by Stephen Hadala.
Mr. Hadala dominated the opening sequence in front of the Stahlbaum house, one that usually featured the children and fake snowballs. This time he had a new trick in making the Pirate, a deliciously menacing Luca Sbrizzi, appear, only to have him make a quick escape offstage.
Mr. Sbrizzi came back, but in the shape of a tiny doll, setting a new theme at the party where more dolls were freshly made by costumier Janet Groom for the Harlequin and Columbine, played with immense appeal by Christine Schwaner and Nicholas Coppula.
When Mr. Orr first designed his "Nutcracker," he promised a fistful of little stories within the Hoffman tale. The first act delivered on that promise, with new emphasis on character studies -- the frustrated butler who had no patience with mischievous children, two "old" ladies who frolicked on a wooden horse, a friskier Fritz (Tanner Littell) who tried to blame the grandfather (an equally friskier Joseph Parr) for the broken nutcracker.
The transformation scene was exceptionally smooth, and yes, more magical, and the ensuing battle between the soldiers and the mice took on a better dynamic with larger soldiers recruited for the regiment. And when the Snowflakes began to flurry, impeccably led by Erin Halloran (did I see four pirouettes in her fouette sequence?) and Nurlan Abougaliev, they had a crystalline clarity that capped a terrific first act, the best that I can recall.
Of course, most people look forward to the international showcase that makes up the second act, ensconced in yet another magical setting, an amusement park. While the dancing was generally of a clean classical standard and the setting ablaze with lights, it couldn't capitalize on the brilliant wattage conjured up in the first act.
The exception was the trio of Shepherdesses, that most classical of variations. Led by Ms. Schwaner, with Caitlin Peabody and Gabrielle Thurlow, it had a pristine style, where the dancers had an airy quality, a result of being beautifully grounded en pointe.
Certainly Elysa Hotchkiss and Alejandro Diaz scored big in the always popular Arabian, both with those long, lean lines so suited to the sinuous nature of the dance, although Ms. Hotchkiss could still use a more defined approach to her always ethereal porte bras. And there couldn't have been a more beautiful pairing than Sugarplum Fairy Julia Erickson and Sugarplum Cavalier Robert Moore, although they didn't appear at first to have that confident classical grounding as did the Shepherdesses. But Mr. Moore warmed to the task by the final section, particularly with his series of jumps.
Husband-and-wife team Christopher Budzynski (Nephew/Nutcracker) and Alexandra Kochis (Marie), however, showed how to maintain continuity throughout the production. Drawing on the adventuresome qualities we saw from them in "The Three Musketeers," they had the spark -- let's call it a definite star quality -- to make each entrance yet another piece of magic.
But perhaps the only new trick I'd like see Mr. Hadala conjure up next year is to wave his wand and produce live orchestral accompaniment. Then my "Nutcracker" holiday would be complete and Mr. Orr could indeed rest on his laurels.
"The Nutcracker" will continue through Dec. 26. Times vary. For tickets, call 412-456-6666 and visit www.pbt.org or the Box Office at Theater Square.
First Published December 13, 2010 1:55 pm