'Nutcracker' features more magic, terrific set designs

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Holiday magic has always been a part of "The Nutcracker," given Marie's dreamy journey to the Land of Enchantment. But now choreographer Terrence Orr doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter.

In years past, the lamplighter took a leisurely walk, a serene prelude to what was to come. Perhaps acknowledging that this could be a bit of a yawn for young audiences, Mr. Orr literally pumped up the magic from the start.

Now that same lamplighter is interrupted by an energetic Drosselmeyer and his nephew and treated to a private performance. The duo immediately stack some colorful packages, spin them about and -- "voila!" -- they open to reveal the Pirate, who charges offstage, only to be presumably dissipated in a flash of light. A fireball from Drosselmeyer?

Yes, this year's Drosselmeyer has a lot more power, but then, this is the age of superheroes, such as Batman and the Avengers, who all have the benefit of computer-generated special effects.

'The Nutcracker'

  • Where:

    Benedum Center, Downtown.

  • When:

    7 p.m. Dec. 14-15, 20-22 and 28-29; 2 p.m. Dec. 15, 22 and 29; noon Dec. 16, 23 and 30; 4:30 p.m. Dec. 16 and 23. The Dec. 14 performance will be audio described. Assistive listening devices can be obtained from ushers. Large-print and Braille programs also will available.

  • Tickets:

    $25.75-$95.75 at www.pbt.org or 412-456-6666.

While Drosselmeyer can't go there yet, he is alive and kicking on stage and the audiences seemed to relish it, particularly the child-packed Saturday matinee at the Benedum Center. Oohs, ahs and "awesome" could be heard, not only from the magic tricks, but from Zack Brown's epic sets.

It reminded me that "The Nutcracker" not only remains the most impressive holiday performance in Pittsburgh, but it draws many first-time audience members who particularly enjoy Grandfather's time-traveling solo, one that now sports some "Gangnam Style" moves.

For the most part, Mr. Orr skillfully shifted the action, giving a fresh perspective to the staging. The most important moments, mostly magic-driven, flowed in a newly cohesive style. Audiences could also scan over some subplots, like an expanded flirtation between the spinsterish Aunt Hortense and Aunt Gertrude and the portly General, that enriched the party scene.

Not only is this "Nutcracker" family-friendly, it proved to be dancer-friendly, a perfect opportunity for the PBT ensemble to show off plenty of personality. There are at least seven Maries, with more cast variations over the 20 performances, especially since Joseph Parr and Makoto Ono, both scheduled to play numerous prominent roles from the Nutcracker to a Russian dancer, are on the injury list.

At the opening this weekend, I was able to see three complete casts at the Friday and Saturday evening performances and Saturday matinee, all satisfying because the artists played upon their strengths.

A trio of real-life couples took on Marie and the Nephew. Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski dazzled on opening night with technical splendor, she in her fleet footwork, he with breathtaking jumps. Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silva capitalized on the warmth and naturalness of their stage connection. Mr. Silva's creamy style of movement had a great weight and his unflagging support allowed Ms. Schwaner an enviable freedom. Eva Trapp particularly scored in the first act, so detailed and light in her character development, while Nicholas Coppula tapped a new fluidity as her love interest.

All the Drosselmeyers may have sported the same top hat, swirling cape and bag of tricks, but Alejandro Diaz brought a continental flair to the role, while Nurlan Abougaliev was the consummate entertainer.

As for Stephen Hadala, he was a happy-go-lucky magician, intent on bringing a cartload of cheer to the Stahlbaum household. That attitude infused the 15-year old company veteran's other roles where he unleashed aerial cartwheels and back handsprings.

Among an assortment of fine performances, Julia Erickson brought a star quality to the Snow Queen and Arabian with Robert Moore and regally presided over the Land of Enchantment as the Sugarplum Fairy with Mr. Silva at her side.

With the dancers already at such a high level, this latest "Nutcracker" edition is like a box of chocolate truffles, with more treats to discover.

"The Nutcracker" continues through Dec. 31. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org.

theater - theaterreviews

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net. She also blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.


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