What does a $100,000 Christmas tree look like onstage at the Academy of Music?

For one thing, it blended in nicely among the other sets and costumes when the Pennsylvania Ballet opened George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker Friday night (continuing through Dec. 31). But it also also offered a light show within the ballet with candles and lights that change colors, glow, flash, and burst in mini shooting stars.

It might be hard to appreciate if you hadn’t seen the old tree, which looked like it was covered with AstroTurf and last year couldn’t be raised to its full height. This year it was magical.

The soldiers and bunny are ready to fight the mice in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."
Alexander Iziliaev
The soldiers and bunny are ready to fight the mice in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."

And magic and wonder are what The Nutcracker is all about.

It starts with Marie and her family getting ready for their Christmas party. On opening night, Marie was a charming Audrey Tovar, daughter of assistant artistic director Samantha Dunster and Eddy Tovar, director of Pennsylvania Ballet II, and niece of demi-soloist Etienne Diaz.

Her prince was Liam Agnew, who first arrives at the party doubling as the nephew of Herr Drosselmeier, who gives Marie the nutcracker. On opening night, Drosselmeier was played by company ballet master Charles Askegard.

(Fun fact: Askegard, then at the New York City Ballet, danced the motion-capture moves for the prince role in the DVD classic Barbie in the Nutcracker.)

The snow scene in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."
Alexander Iziliaev
The snow scene in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."

The magic also arrives in the form of toy soldiers who come to life. Marie and her brother, Fritz, must’ve lost one, because an amusing bunny takes its place among the troops.

Year after year, it’s still delightful when the snow falls from the rafters on the wintry-blue landscape based on East Falls. Red-coated members of the Philadelphia Boys Choir sing as the dancers leap across the stage.

Lillian DiPiazza was a beautiful Sugar Plum Fairy on opening night, with the delicate steps of a Disney princess. Many Balanchine ballets have a variety of ways the steps can be performed, and DiPiazza chose easier pirouettes in the pas de deux, which she performed cleanly.

Oksana Maslova is Coffee in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."
Alexander Iziliaev
Oksana Maslova is Coffee in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."

Among the opening-night solos, Jermel Johnson was wonderful as Candy Cane, jumping high and effortlessly leaping through a hoop. Hyper-flexible Oksana Maslova looks meant for the sleek, slinky Coffee variation, and Mayara Pineiro was quick and light as Dewdrop, dancing among the flowers.

The Nutcracker is eternal in ballet. Companies rely on it for a large portion of their annual income. And year after year, it remains enchanting.

DANCE REVIEW

Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Through Dec. 31, Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., $35-$159, 215-893-1999, paballet.org

Lillian DiPiazza as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."
Alexander Iziliaev
Lillian DiPiazza as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker."