When the curtain rises Friday night on the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, audiences will get the first look at the company’s spiffed-up Nutcracker Christmas tree, with nearly $100,000 in upgrades.
The tree was built in 2002. It hadn’t been upgraded in 2007, when the ballet company bought richly colored new Nutcracker costumes and sets, and it was looking increasingly ratty by comparison. Its foliage had faded to AstroTurf green. The mechanics and lights had begun to fail, as well.
In his review of the ballet orchestra last year, Inquirer classical music critic Peter Dobrin wrote that “both the tree and ensemble need more oomph.”
The Nutcracker tree is meant to grow before our eyes during Marie’s dream scene at a climax in Tchaikovsky’s music. And mostly, it did.
But the bottom section of lights would no longer turn on, and the tree was being raised only part way up to conceal the blacked-out branches. It sometimes appeared to have gotten stuck.
What’s more, the stagehands working the pulleys to make the big moment possible could be awkwardly visible through the thinning foliage. “At the right angle, if an audience member was so inclined, they could peer right through,” said Paul Hewitt, the ballet company’s head carpenter and shop steward, who oversaw the upgrades.
It looked even worse to the ballet company’s artistic leadership, who would see the wilting tree in about 30 productions each December, Hewitt said.
Everything about the tree now has been repaired, refreshed, or redecorated — except for the star on top and the basic structure underneath it all, both of which remain. Its new, darker foliage, festooned with candles and toys, should dazzle as it grows on cue during Marie’s dream, with hundreds of LEDs aglow.
Proof Productions, a scenic shop in Sewell, N.J., did the refurbishments for just under the budgeted $100,000.
Last week at the Pennsylvania Ballet’s warehouse in Sharon Hill, Delaware County, Hewitt pointed out the features of the new tree — at that point half-assembled — as well as props, costumes, staging, and other items being readied for The Nutcracker.
Hewitt held a worn-down wheel from the pulley system at the interior of the tree, pointing out the broken spots. The old set has been replaced with new wheels. (They’re the same ones used in aircraft steering mechanisms.)
Darker, thicker, more natural-looking new foliage will let stagehands slip in undetected when it’s time to make the tree grow, instead of standing as still as possible for as long as 18 minutes waiting for their cue.
New lighting designed by Uel Bergey, the ballet company’s master electrician, includes about 750 LEDs and 24 electric candles, run from a console that controls all the stage lighting.
Hewitt is the son of former Philadelphia Orchestra oboist Stevens Hewitt and has studied violin and viola himself. He’ll be using his musical training to coordinate things during performances as the stage crew unfurls the growing, gleaming tree to specific counts in the score. (His siblings work on Broadway, and his brother-in-law is a violinist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra.)
A ballet wonderland
Beyond the tree, the Pennsylvania Ballet warehouse near Delaware County Community College is a wonder in itself, where sets for many ballets are stored and sometimes built. Standing in pieces near the Nutcracker sets last week was the enormous windmill from Don Quixote, which the company danced earlier in this season. The Indian decor for La Bayadère was there, too, borrowed from the Boston Ballet for the Pennsylvania Ballet’s upcoming production in March.
Later that day, Hewitt said, property manager Daniel Amadie would “clean the floors,” unrolling some of the company’s dozens of rolls of Marley, the vinyl flooring used in ballet. Scuffs from previous ballets needed to be scrubbed off some gray flooring chosen for this year’s Nutcracker.
The floor and all the props are Amadie’s domain, while Hewitt is in charge of anything that hangs from the ceiling.
Amadie sifted through buckets of Victorian dolls, noting that the company has about 30 in various states of repair. For each performance, seven will be chosen as props for the girls dancing in the party scene. “They can break five or six in a day,” he said.
A shelf nearby held a number of nutcrackers, some needing repairs. In the ballet, Marie’s brother, Fritz, throws the soldier down in spite, which used to cause it to shatter, lose its head, or fly into the orchestra pit. Now, dowels are drilled into the Pennsylvania Ballet’s nutcrackers to make them sturdier, Hewitt explained, and the child playing Fritz is instructed to be careful.
Also standing around were the taller, golden nutcrackers that will greet audience members in the lobby at the Academy of Music.
‘Nutcracker’ on the move
Hewitt’s team had half the tree and many other items already packed and ready to move to the Academy. He approved of the upgraded greenery.
"Last year I was obsessed with the tree,” he said.
And a few days later, on the Sunday of the long Thanksgiving weekend — as people all over the Philadelphia region hauled Christmas trees home on the roofs of their cars — the Pennsylvania Ballet’s crew in Delco loaded the company’s spiffy new Nutcracker Christmas tree onto a truck.
It would move to the Academy of Music on Monday, along with tutus, props, scenery, flooring, and shoes.
The seven-person crew would have just enough time to set up and test everything before the dancers arrived at the venue for their week of rehearsal for another Nutcracker season.
Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
Friday through Dec. 31, Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., $35-$159, 215-893-1999, paballet.org